Friends and Brothers! Bolshevism is the enemy of the Russian people. It has brought countless disasters to our country. Enough blood has been spilled! There has been enough starvation, forced labour and suffering in the Bolshevik torture chambers! Arise and join in the struggle for freedom! Long may peace with honour with Germany prevail!

General Vlasov’s appeal to the Russian nation,

27 December 1942

In August 1941 the commander of Einsatzgruppe B, Artur Nebe, called up experts from the Criminal Technical Institute to help him solve a problem. A short while before, Heinrich Himmler had visited the Belorussian capital of Minsk to witness the execution of a hundred ‘saboteurs’. It was the first time he had seen men killed, shot a dozen at a time face down in an open pit. He asked Nebe to test other methods that were less brutalizing to those who carried out the executions. The experts drove to Russia in trucks filled with explosives and gassing equipment. The morning after their arrival they drove out to a wood outside Minsk, where they packed two wooden bunkers with 250 kilograms of explosive and twenty mental patients seized from a Soviet asylum. The first attempt to blow them up failed, and the wounded and frightened victims were packed back into the bunkers with a further 100 kilograms of explosive. This time they were blown to smithereens, and Jewish prisoners were forced to scour the area picking up the human remains. The group then tried a different method at an asylum in Mogilev. Here they herded mental patients into a bricked-up laboratory, into which they inserted a pipe connected to a car exhaust. Fumes from the car took too long to kill the victims, and the car was swapped for a truck, which could generate a larger volume of fumes. The victims died in eight minutes. Gas killing became the preferred option. Altogether an estimated 10,000 died in asylums across German-occupied territory: men, women and children.1

These murderous experiments were part of a programme of ethnic cleansing and ‘counter-insurgency’ in the East that led to the deaths of millions of Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, captured Communists, partisans and ordinary people caught in the crossfire of ideological and racial war – a harvest of dead unparalleled in the history of modern war. Few of those who witnessed German tanks rolling past their villages in the early days of the invasion knew what to expect of the invader. In the Baltic states, Belorussia and the Ukraine there was strong hostility to Stalin and Stalinism, but alienation from Soviet rule did not necessarily mean that German rule would be any more welcome. Even collaboration with the invader, with the usual implication of betrayal and opportunism, should not always be taken at face value.

There is no doubt that some of those who found themselves under German control in the East did work with the invader. Some did so voluntarily, spurred on by a genuine loathing of Soviet Communism. Some did so in the mistaken belief that the Germans had enlightened views on the restoration of private land ownership and capitalist enterprise. (In Kiev a number of Jewish merchants even petitioned the German authorities for permission to restart their businesses.)2 Some did so because they saw an opportunity to set up independent national states long denied them by Soviet repression. National committees were formed in the Baltic states, in the Ukraine and in the Caucasus area. The largest number of collaborators were to be found helping the German armed forces. The recruitment of Soviet military labour began not long after the invasion. Soviet prisoners or local labourers were used as auxiliary volunteers. They performed mainly menial jobs – building defences, hauling supplies or building airfields and camps. They were employed in secret at first, for Hitler had expressly forbidden the use of Soviet labour. Rather than use their labour power for the war effort, the Germans left millions of prisoners of war in huge open camps to die of malnutrition and disease.3 But German commanders in Russia soon found they had no choice but to recruit local labour. The vast area of the front and the speed of the advance made it impossible to supply enough German hands to run the whole military apparatus that backed up the front line. By the end of the summer of 1943 Soviet recruits were to be found in the ranks of the fighting force itself, mobilized for the crusade against Bolshevism.

At first the recruits were drawn mainly from the non-Russian nationalities, who were more hostile to the Soviet system. In 1941 the prisoner-of-war camps were combed for prisoners from the Caucasus or Turkestan, who were removed, fitted out with German uniforms, given mainly German officers (only seventy-four of the released prisoners were given officer status) and inferior Soviet weapons. The Islamic units were supplied with an imam each, and Sunni and Shi’ite priests were trained at theological schools in Dresden and Gottingen to meet the high demand for Islamic instruction among the troops. Many of the recruited men were added to existing German divisions, in small numbers as a safeguard against defection.4 But as the war went on they were formed into larger units. There were two Ukrainian divisions, a division from Turkestan, an SS division raised from Galicia, and more than 150,000 Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. Above all there were the Cossacks. These military tribesmen were legendary fighters, with a long and bloody history of service to the Tsars. Many fought against the Bolsheviks in the civil war, and they were never reconciled to a system that denied them a national existence and savagely suppressed the traditions of Cossack life. They made no secret of their desire to build a national homeland — Kazakia — but they were welcomed by German commanders as comrades in arms.5

Cossack regiments in the Red Army crossed over to the enemy and volunteered for service. They formed fast-moving cavalry squadrons and were used to hunt down partisans. When in 1942 the Cossack homelands in the south were liberated by German armies, they were greeted by the entire populations of villages and farmsteads singing local anthems and bearing gifts of food and flowers. The men dug up the swords, daggers and rifles that they had buried away years before and rode out in full costume, with the familiar crisscross bullet belts and sabres, to offer their services. One ancient leader, the hetman Kulakov, long believed to be dead, emerged from hiding and headed a magnificent tribal procession into the Cossack capital of Poltava. The horsemen were recruited into the German army that was approaching Stalingrad. They were sent off to hunt down groups of Red Army stragglers, which they did with a ferocious and merciless efficiency. In 1943 even Hitler overcame his prejudice against Asian peoples and agreed to the first full Cossack division. The numbers multiplied. There were by 1944 over 250,000 Cossacks serving on the German side.6

In total an estimated one million Soviet soldiers ended up fighting against their country. Many did so out of desperation, as the only alternative to dying in the prisoner-of-war camps or being sent to the Reich as forced labourers, where an estimated 750,000 died of mistreatment and neglect.7 This was hardly voluntary collaboration in any meaningful sense of the term, though it earned most of them a death warrant or a prison sentence when at the end of the war they found themselves on the losing side. Some of those who defected did so with greater enthusiasm. For the anti-guerrilla campaign the Germans hired gangs of Soviet mercenaries and freebooters to root out the resisters. They asked few questions about what methods were used. A Soviet engineer, Voskoboinikov, virtually ran the area around Orel and Kursk for the Germans. With 20,000 men and twenty-four tanks he terrorized the population, collecting taxes and food by force, murdering anyone who resisted. Soviet paratroopers dropped into the area assassinated him in January 1942.8

There were plenty of replacements. Voskoboinikov was succeeded by the most notorious defector of all, Bronislav Kaminsky, another Soviet engineer who established a reign of terror and crime across the region. Backed by 10,000 men and thousands of camp followers, Kaminsky was left to pacify the region as he saw fit. His forces became part of the pretentiously titled Russian National Army of Liberation, though they liberated little save other people’s possessions. The reputation of the Kaminsky Brigade vied with that of the SS. Heinrich Himmler, who controlled the brigade, withdrew it from Russia in 1944 to deal with a Polish revolt in Warsaw. The behaviour of the brigade in slaughtering thousands of Polish civilians in scenes of appalling cruelty proved too much even for the hardened stomachs of the SS. Kaminsky was shot on the orders of his German mentor, and the remnants of his unit were sent off to form the nucleus of another renegade Russian army being formed to fight in the last ditch against Communism. They arrived at the Russian camp in Wurttemberg under the astonished gaze of their new commander, General Buniachenko, a procession of horse-drawn carts carrying both armed and unarmed men, wearing every kind of uniform, accompanied by their women, who were draped in dresses and jewels they had looted. The officers wore a row of watches on each wrist. Buniachenko was dumbfounded: ‘This is what you are giving me -bandits, robbers, thieves?’9

The man the Kaminsky outlaws were going to serve was General Andrei Vlasov, who only three years before had distinguished himself in the defence of Moscow and was recognized as one of Stalin’s favourites. He was now the head of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia and the nominal leader of those Soviet citizens, more than five million in number, now living under German rule. Vlasov looked the very model of a Prussian general: tall and heavily built, with his hair combed back tightly from a receding hairline and small horn-rimmed spectacles, his appearance was austere and militaristic. He wore no medals or insignia, save a small white, blue and red cockade of the Russian Liberation Army, whose commander he had also now become. He saw himself as the spokesman of a different Russia from Stalin’s, but his appeal was always overshadowed by his decision to pursue that Russia at the side of Hitler.

Vlasov was born in 1900, the thirteenth and last son of a peasant. After a seminary education, he was called up into the fledgling Red Army in 1919 and fought in some of the bitterest conflicts of the civil war in the Caucasus, the Crimea and the Ukraine. He became a successful career soldier and, like Zhukov, was lucky enough to survive the purges. He became a Communist Party member in 1930 and won the Order of Lenin (and a gold watch) in 1940. His unit was the last to fight its way out of the Kiev pocket in September 1941; in November Vlasov’s 20th Army was defending the northern approaches to the Soviet capital; in January he led the counter-offensive to encircle the whole German force in front of Moscow. In March 1942 Vlasov led the 2nd Shock Army on the Volkhov Front south of Leningrad in its effort to break the German line, but it was encircled and the army annihilated in June. Vlasov was captured on July 12 while hiding in a village hut. He was taken to a special camp for prominent prisoners at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, where Hitler had his forward headquarters. Here he wrote to the German authorities suggesting the idea of an anti-Stalin Russian Liberation Army, making the most of anti-Bolshevik sentiment among prisoners of war and the populations of the occupied areas.10

There are various reasons suggested for Vlasov’s sudden conversion. His brother was shot in the civil war for alleged anti-Bolshevik conspiracy; he had given his elderly parents a cow as a present, and they were punished for it as ‘rich peasants’; he is reported to have been shocked by the sight of Ukrainians greeting the Germans with flowers, bread and salt, which awoke in him a realization of how unpopular Stalin was.11 The most likely explanation is the one Vlasov himself gave: he was alienated from a system that traded in lies and deceit, butchered its own people and threw thousands of soldiers into battles for which they were poorly prepared.12 He soon made his political credentials public. Despite the disapproval of Hitler, leading diplomats and officers conspired to have Vlasov released, in order to establish a Russian liberation movement, whose founding meeting was held in Smolensk in December 1942. The ‘Smolensk Declaration’ was a direct political challenge not just to Stalin but to the whole Soviet system. Vlasov pledged his movement to abolish collective farms and the state-run economy, and to establish civil rights for all, but within a ‘New Europe’ modelled on German lines. There was no mention of democracy.13

Hitler remained immovably opposed to the Vlasov project. He feared that a Russian liberation movement would undermine Germany’s own plans for the East, and he deeply distrusted the motives of any Russian. When in September 1943 the German line broke at a point manned by Eastern volunteer units, Hitler flew into a rage and insisted on drawing the collaborators out of the line and sending them to western and southern Europe. This effectively undermined the whole basis of collaboration. Vlasov and a great many other former Soviet soldiers did not want to fight America and Britain on Germany’s behalf. They were interested only in freeing Russia from the Stalinist grip. Nevertheless, thousands of Soviet soldiers were left guarding the West Wall. On D-Day they surrendered to their bemused enemy with shouts of ‘Ruskii, Ruskii’. The Liberation Committee was accepted by Hitler only in September 1944, when everyone who could fight was needed to save Germany from Soviet vengeance. Vlasov was given two weak divisions, with not the remotest prospect of liberating anyone in the East. There was one final twist to the story. When Vlasov’s Russian divisions finally saw action in March and April 1945 they ended up fighting the Germans again – protecting the people of Prague from an SS force on the rampage against a Czech revolt.14 Vlasov and his men tried then to reach American lines, hoping that the United States would start a second anti-Soviet war and let them fight alongside. They were caught by the Red Army. Some, including wounded men in hospital in Prague, were shot on the spot.15 The rest were brought back to the Soviet Union, where a grisly fate awaited them. Refusing to recant, Vlasov and his senior colleagues were tortured with exceptional ferocity. Tried in July 1946 in camera on treason charges, he was sentenced to death on August 1. The following day he was hanged; rumour had it that he was strung up with piano wire, with a hook dug into the back of his skull. Vlasov told one of his interrogators, ‘In time, the people will remember us with warmth.’16

The reaction to Vlasov after 1945 was mixed. In the Soviet Union the official line was to condemn him as a coward and a traitor who deserved rough Communist justice. Vlasov’s supporters saw him as a Russian patriot who tried to steer an impossible course between the two dictators, and his reputation has accordingly been resuscitated since the fall of Soviet Communism. What distinguished Vlasov and the Liberation Army from other Soviet dissidents, however, was their willingness to harness the liberation campaign to the German war effort. Soviet soldiers on the German side shot at ordinary Russians, burned down Russian villages and looted Russian homes. This was more than simple anti-Bolshevism, and it was harder to forgive. Even if Vlasov and his German allies had succeeded in defeating the Red Army and destroying Stalinism, there is little evidence to suggest that Hitler would have allowed an independent, liberal Russian state in place of the vision of harsh empire that drove his conquest on.

In reality the Russian liberation movement, like the national movements in the Baltic states, the Ukraine and Belorussia, was seen by Hitler as a threat. The conquest of the eastern territories was a gigantic colonial war, not a war to emancipate the peoples of Eurasia. Hitler saw the German future in the east in terms of colonial exploitation. A German governing class would rule the region, supported by a network of garrison cities – rather like the fortified towns of the Roman empire — around which would cluster settlements of German farmers and traders. Plans were drawn up for a web of high-speed motorways to link the regional centres with Berlin and a wide-gauge double-decked railway, along which would sweep the new imperial élite through land tilled by modern helots, millions of Slavs labouring for the master race. Any of the new colonial peoples surplus to the requirements of the empire were to be transported to Slavlands beyond the Urals or left to die.17

It was a vision of empire straight out of science fiction. For the conquered peoples it became fact. The native nationalist movements were violently suppressed. In the Ukraine the mood of temporary exhilaration felt at the retreat of the Soviet order evaporated when from the end of August 1941 the Einsatzgruppen, whose job it was to root out anti-German elements, began systematically to round up Ukrainian nationalists and intellectuals, most of whom were executed.18 In the Baltic states, hope of winning back their independence was broken by the creation of a Nazi Commissariat Ostland, placed under the Nazi commissar Hinrich Lohse, and by Hitler’s decision that the Baltic states should eventually be incorporated into the greater German Reich. Lohse was a Nazi ‘old fighter’ from the early days of the movement who used his new power to indulge in a corrupt caricature of imperial rule – requisitioning palaces and a fleet of cars, and living the life of a pampered sybarite until he fled his post in 1944.19 In the Ukraine a second Commissariat was set up in September, a vast sprawling province that at the height of the war embraced fifty million people. Its ruler was another old Nazi comrade, the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch.

The appointment of Koch was meant as a signal to anyone on either the German or the Soviet side who was in any doubt about the nature of the new Nazi empire. At his inauguration speech in Rovno, a city chosen deliberately because it was not a centre of Ukrainian culture or historic identity, Koch expressed words which soon became notorious: ‘I am known as a brutal dog… Our job is to suck from the Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of… I am expecting from you the utmost severity towards the native population.’20 Ukrainians were regarded as racial inferiors, the lowest kind of humanity. Koch was by no means alone in regarding the Ukraine as dispensable. Goering reflected that the solution in the Ukraine was to kill every man over fifteen years of age. Himmler wanted the intelligentsia ‘decimated’. When one of Koch’s deputies angrily confronted a German official who was planning to reestablish rudimentary education in the region, he blurted out the true state of affairs: ‘Do you wish to create a Ukrainian educated class at the time when we want to annihilate the Ukrainians!’ To protests that forty million people could not be annihilated, the deputy replied: ‘It is our business.’21

The exact number of Ukrainians who died at the hands of the German occupiers will probably never be known. Death was meted out arbitrarily. Peasants who, when questioned by German officials, admitted to being able to read and write were liable to be shot as ‘intellectuals’. Farmers who withheld food stocks or refused to work the fields for the Germans were hanged as an example to the rest. In the district of Rivne the German farm administrators introduced flogging for everything from slack work to the failure of peasants to remove their caps in the presence of Germans; they imposed curfews; the carrying of a knife was punishable by death.22 Thousands of peasants were hanged or shot for suspected partisan activity. Throughout the Ukraine 250 villages and their populations were deliberately obliterated to encourage good behaviour in the rest.

Thousands more died of starvation. The seizure of food supplies to feed the vast German army and its hundreds of thousands of horses left the cities of the conquered region desperately short of food. In the Ukraine it was decided to eliminate ‘superfluous eaters’, primarily Jews and the populations of the cities. In Kiev the meagre food ration was cut sharply (200 grammes of bread per week), roadblocks were set up to prevent food from entering the city and the collective-farm markets supplying the cities were suspended. As the supply of food reached famine levels, the peoples of the east were denied effective medical care. In Kharkov around 80,000 died of starvation, in Kiev almost certainly more. During 1942 food seizures were relaxed so that in the spring farmers would be able to sow their fields, but with the following harvest German demands rose higher still. In 1943 people in Kiev were fed only one third of the minimum they needed for subsistence. The collective farms were not dismantled, as many peasants had hoped, but were run by German officials in place of the local Communists, who had either fled or been killed. In some places grain quotas were fixed at double the level demanded by the Soviet system. Peasants struggled to survive on the food growing on their plots.23

The labour programme was as harsh. In the first weeks of the war Ukrainians volunteered for labour in Germany, but their treatment was so poor that labour quotas had to be imposed and labourers recruited by force. The first volunteers were bundled into boxcars without food and sanitation facilities. When they arrived in Germany they were kept behind barbed wire in rough barracks. Their food was less than the necessary level of nutrition; they were segregated from the rest of the population and forced to wear armbands with the word Ost (East) sewn onto them. When the flow of volunteers dried up, workers were simply seized at gunpoint. Villages that failed to hand over their quota could be torched and their leaders murdered. Churches and cinemas were raided and the people inside shipped off to Germany. Thousands of young Ukrainians fled to the forests and marshes to join the partisans rather than work in captivity. In 1942 Hitler issued a personal order requiring the deporting of half a million Ukrainian women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, to be assigned to German households and Germanized. By the end of the war the Ukraine had supplied over four-fifths of all the forced labour from the East.24 The effect of exploitation on this scale was to alienate much of the population in the East as thoroughly from the Germans as from Stalin.

From Russia’s War

By Richard Overy

Epigraph: C. Andreyev, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories (Cambridge, 1987), p. 209.

1 M. Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900‐194; (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 230‐31.

2 B. Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine under Nazi Occupation’, in Y. Boshyk, Ukraine During World War II (Edmonton, 1986), p. 17.

3 A. Dallin, German Rule in Russia (2nd ed., London, 1981); S. Kudryashov, ‘The Hidden Dimension: Wartime Collaboration in the Soviet Union’, in J. Erickson and D. Dilks, eds., Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies (Edinburgh, T‐994), PP‐ 240‐41.

4 O. Caroe, Soviet Empire: The Turks of Central Asia and Stalinism (London, 1967), pp. 2.47‐8.

5 N. Heller and A. Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (London, 1985), pp. 428‐9; figures from M. R. Elliott, ‘Soviet Military Collaborators during World War II’, in Boshyk, Ukraine, pp. 92‐6.

6 Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, p. 94; S. J. Newland, Cossacks in the German Army, 1941‐1945 (London, 1991), pp. 105‐6, 116‐17; W. Anders, Hitler’s Defeat in Russia (Chicago, 1953), pp. 177‐9. The figure of 250,000 includes some 50,000 who were incorporated into the Cossack Division (15th SS Cossack Cavalry Corps) and other Cossacks recruited into anti‐partisan units, a further twelve reserve regiments and those who served in small numbers in German units, or as non‐combatant auxiliaries. The usual figure given for Cossack combatants is from 20,000 to 25,000 in 1943; the larger figure includes all those who fought for or worked for the Germans at some time between 1941 and 1945.

7 Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, p. 93.

8 Kudryashov, ‘Hidden Dimension’, pp. 243‐5; Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, pp. 95‐6.

9 Anders, Hitler’s Defeat, p. 191.

10 Details from Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 19‐29; J. Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad (London, 1976), pp. 352‐3.

11 Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 38‐40.

12 Ibid., pp. 210‐15, Appendix B, Vlasov’s Open Letter, ‘Why I Decided to Fight Bolshevism.’

13 Ibid., pp. 206‐8, Appendix A, The Smolensk Declaration, 27 December 1942.

14 J. Hoffmann, Die Geschichte der Wlassow‐Armee (Freiburg, 1984), pp. 205‐36.

15 Heller and Nekrich, Utopia, pp. 437‐8; Hoffmann, ‘Wlassow‐Armee, p. 244.

16 Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 78‐9.

17 On German plans for the East see R‐D. Müller, Hitlers Ostkrieg und die deutsche Siedlungspolitik (Frankfurt am Main, 1991); M. Burleigh, ‘Nazi Europe’, in N. Ferguson, ed., Virtual History (London, 1997), pp. 317‐39;

N. Rich, Hitler’s War Aims: The Establishment of the New Order (London, 1977), PP‐ 32‐2. Ff.

18 Krawchenko, Soviet Ukraine, pp. 22‐3.

19 Rich, War Aims, pp. 359‐60.

20 I. Kamenetsky, Hitler’s Occupation of Ukraine, 1941‐1944: A Study in Totalitarian Imperialism (Milwaukee, 1956), p. 35.

21 Ibid., pp. 43‐6.

22 On peasant ‘intellectuals’ see R. Bosworth, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing on the Second World War (London, 1993), pp. 149‐51; Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine’, p. 27; O. Zambinsky, ‘Collaboration of the Population in Occupied Ukrainian Territory: Some Aspects of the Overall Picture’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies 10 (1997), p. 149.

23 Krawchenko, pp. 26‐7; Zambinsky, ‘Collaboration’, p. 148 on Kiev rations; T. P. Mulligan, The Politics of Illusion and Empire: German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union 1942 ‐1943 (Westport, Conn. 1988), pp. 93 ‐103 for figures on German food supplies from the USSR. Over 10 million tons of grain and almost 2.5 million tons of hay were taken.

24 Out of 2.8 million Ostarbeiter carried off to Germany, 2.3 million came from the Ukraine. See Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine’, pp. 27‐8; Kamenetsky, Occupation of Ukraine, pp. 46‐8.


Atrocities committed by the German military during World War II indiscriminately against men and women, who, particularly in the east, were objectified and dehumanized. For decades historians maintained that the German armed forces during World War II, collectively called the Wehrmacht, were simple soldiers who had the misfortune of fighting for a criminal regime. Historians tended to separate the Wehrmacht from the specialized units that accompanied it into battle such as the SS, the Secret Police (Gestapo), and the infamous police battalions responsible for murdering entire Jewish communities on the eastern front.

Soon after the war, memoirs from leading German generals seeking to distance themselves from the Nazi regime flooded the publishing market. U.S. and British historians tended to rely on these accounts and portrayed the Wehrmacht as an honorable institution that was hijacked by a clique of criminals. One of the underlying reasons for this sympathetic portrayal was the cold war. The perceived threat from the Soviet Union necessitated that West Germany become a full partner in the defense of western Europe. Denigrating the Wehrmacht, many of whose generals were needed to rebuild the new German military (now called the Bundeswehr), was counterproductive. There was also a sense that the Nuremburg Trials properly identified and punished those responsible for Nazi Germany’s crimes during the war. Too many historians accepted the notion that the Wehrmacht was not involved in the widespread atrocities committed against civilians and soldiers. For the most part, these atrocities occurred on the eastern front against the Soviet people, specifically Jews.

By the mid-1980s historians started to delve further into Wehrmacht activities on the eastern front and quickly learned that regular army units were intimately involved in committing atrocities. The Wehrmacht supported the Nazi regime’s goal of racially reordering Europe and conquering Lebensraum (living space) for Germany in the East. Every organ of the German government was given a role in accomplishing this task, including the Wehrmacht. In 1934 all officers and enlisted men of the Wehrmacht personally swore a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler. Most did so enthusiastically because they considered Hitler an advocate of military spending and saw a chance to return the military to greatness. The oath bound the Wehrmacht tightly to the Nazi regime and ensured its participation in every phase of Hitler’s plan to destroy European Jewry and dismantle what he called Judeo-Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. Even without the Wehrmacht’s ideological affinity for National Socialism, the German military already had a past record of committing atrocities against civilians during World War I, specifically in Belgium and parts of eastern Europe. Most of the incidents during World War I were isolated, but this was not the case during World War II. Mass executions, population removals, poor treatment of prisoners, and the use of slave labor were Wehrmacht policies handed down from generals to subordinates in an organized fashion.

The Wehrmacht prepared for a different sort of war against the Soviet Union years before the conflict began. According to Nazi leadership, the future war against Poland and the Soviet Union was to be one of annihilation. Beginning with the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht carried with it into battle orders from Hitler to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia so that they would not threaten the German settlement of Polish territory. The Wehrmacht applied broad definitions of who could be considered a partisan and treated large numbers of civilians as legitimate military targets. This definition included Jews, who by virtue of being Jewish were considered automatic threats to the Wehrmacht. Most people identified as partisans were executed, a task shared by the Wehrmacht, the SS, the Gestapo, and police battalions created to occupy territory after the Wehrmacht moved forward. Although many Wehrmacht generals disapproved of their soldiers participating in executions and otherwise enforcing a harsh occupation (mostly for reasons of limited resources), evidence shows that Wehrmacht units were used interchangeably with the SS to execute Jews, Polish clergy, and intellectuals.

Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in July 1941, the Wehrmacht was already experienced at fighting a war of racial annihilation. The Wehrmacht had to guard against disorder in the ranks while still fulfilling its ugly task of killing large numbers of civilians. Letters and films taken by Wehrmacht soldiers at the front reveal that daily life on the eastern front involved treating civilians and enemy soldiers alike as subhumans worthy of extreme treatment. One of the more infamous Wehrmacht policies was to execute a large number of citizens for every Wehrmacht soldier killed by partisans or resistance fighters. This policy applied to all of Germany’s occupied territories, but it was enforced more regularly in the East. For example, if 5 soldiers were killed by partisans, the Wehrmacht might kill 500 civilians from the town where the partisans allegedly lived. Such policies typified the Wehrmacht’s conduct on the eastern front in particular, especially because it regarded the Soviet people, not just the military, as a dangerous enemy.

Although the Wehrmacht did not specifically target women when committing atrocities, it had no qualms about executing women and children during reprisals for actions taken against its soldiers. Films taken by Wehrmacht soldiers show soldiers putting nooses around the necks of Russian women accused of spying and attaching signs labeling them “Jewish cows” or other insults. Men and women had different experiences in the ghettos and concentration camps erected by other organs of the National Socialist state, but the Wehrmacht’s atrocities were characterized by their speed, brutality, and indifference to artificialities such as gender. The Wehrmacht viewed entire populations as enemies and treated them accordingly.

References and Further Reading

Bartov, Omer. 1992. “The Conduct of War: Soldiers and the Barbarization of Warfare.” The Journal of Modern History 64:32–45.

———. 1992. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford

University Press.

Forster, Jurgen. 1981. “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union.” Yad Vashem Studies 14:7–33.

Rossino, Alexander B. 2003. Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

BOOK REVIEW:1945: The War That Never Ended.

Has information on General Vlasov and ROA & RONA


Gregor Dallas. 1945: The War That Never Ended. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. xx + 739 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-10980-1.

Reviewed by Timothy L. Schroer
Published on H-German (November, 2006)

Stalin against the World

The cold war’s end opened the prospect that historians might write its history in a manner less disturbed by the passions and political commitments that it had stirred. Some may have hoped that with the aid of hindsight and newly available evidence, a more detached examination of the period might lead to new understanding. Gregor Dallas takes a different approach. He offers a passionate indictment of what he describes as the Soviet Union’s war against the West, stretching from the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 through the 1950s.

This sprawling, popularly pitched work argues that the “war that never ended” was waged by Stalin and the Soviet Union against the non-communist world. The so-called “alliance” between the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States against the Third Reich, Dallas insists, was a fiction. In reality, from at least 1939 onward Stalin fought a war to spread Soviet influence and he had no real alliance with the British or Americans. Dallas maintains that the cold war began far earlier than 1947.

The book, which is based mainly on readings in published works, highlights the important points of conflict among the Big Three during the war. The Soviet failure to support the Warsaw uprising in 1944 stands out as a salient case. The closing months of combat in Europe witnessed, in Dallas’s retelling, the fateful jockeying for postwar position through the movements of armies in Europe. The book casts Stalin as the villain of the piece. Charles de Gaulle, Dallas writes, would eventually learn that “a bargain with the Communist world leadership was a bargain with the devil” (p. 321). Elsewhere Dallas observes that “Stalin’s system had its prototype in Hell” (p. 270). Dallas vigorously indicts those in the United States and western Europe who, whether because of blindness, dishonesty or a desire to minimize friction in the alliance, attempted to brush under the rug the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.

The book, despite its title, is not structured as a chronology of events of the year 1945. It begins with the Battle of Berlin, but then moves back in time to 1944 and describes in some detail the liberation of Paris and the Warsaw uprising, as well as the movements of armies in 1944. It is a bit surprising to read in a book titled 1945 that August 18 and 19, 1944, represented “the moment that would determine the shape of post-war Europe” (p. xvii). After bringing the story through May 8, 1945, the work devotes comparatively little attention to the last half of the year before surveying developments in Europe during the first two decades of the cold war.

For H-German readers, the book’s treatment of German history will be of greatest interest. The crimes of the Third Reich tend to recede into the background as the story of Stalin’s war against the West takes prominence. Dallas generally finds the most important context in which to place Nazism’s genocidal war to be the world of the Stalinist system.

Throughout the work Dallas emphasizes affinities between Nazis and communists. Nazism originated “as a mutation of Bolshevism” (p. 372) and he finds that, on balance, Stalin achieved a more totalitarian control over the Soviets than Hitler managed to obtain over the Germans. The book underscores the socialist character of National Socialism, arguing that “Goebbels took his role as propagandist for the National Socialist cause most seriously” (p. 363, emphasis in the original). Dallas describes the brief moment in the fall of 1932 when the Nazi Party and the German Communist Party both supported a strike by the Berlin transportation workers and asserts that once Hitler assumed the chancellorship he “turned on the Communists with a vengeance” (p. 376). An uninformed reader might come away from this brief section under the mistaken impression that the KPD had allied itself with the NSDAP during the Weimar Republic and then been double-crossed by Hitler in January 1933.

The framing of Nazism in the context of communism appears most strikingly in a section entitled “The Holocaust and the Gulag,” which Dallas begins by contrasting the approximately 21,000 inmates in the Third Reich’s concentration camps in 1939 with the at least 1.9 million victims of the Stalinist gulag at the same time (pp. 456-7). In the book’s interpretation of the origins of the Holocaust, Stalin appears again as the arch-villain. “Probably the event decisive for the fate of the Jews was initiated not by Hitler,” Dallas writes, “but by Stalin” (p. 466). According to the author, it was Stalin’s deportation of the Volga Germans in September 1941 together with Hitler’s growing pessimism about the prospect of crushing the Soviet Union that moved Hitler to decide “to exterminate the Jews of Europe in return” (p. 466). The incident described by Dallas is suggestive, but it is placed in the comparatively narrow context of Stalinism, without the fuller and more persuasive examination of the question offered by Christopher Browning in the light of other Nazi measures against Jews around Europe during those crucial weeks in the fall of 1941.[1]

The book does stress the murderous nature of the Third Reich. Hitler is described as “Berlin’s Beelzebub” (p. 424) and Dallas observes that “one should never underestimate the Nazi propensity for killing” (p. 468). Nevertheless, in a work focusing on Stalin’s misdeeds and picking up the story as the Red Army stood poised to enter the territory of the Reich, the suffering of the Germans stands out.

The writing appears to reflect an admirable desire to rise above the stodgy prose of many historians, but the work disappoints stylistically. Some of Dallas’s similes are more striking for their inventiveness than their ability to improve the reader’s grasp of the subject. Dallas writes, for example, “Like a wounded cat, which the westward-pointing peninsula resembled, Europe inhaled all the problems of the world, then exhaled them all out again” (p. 577). The book is also repetitive. We read, for example, a quotation from Goebbels’s diary entry of March 30, 1945, noting that he doubted the predictions of astrologers, but was willing to exploit them for their propaganda value; the same quotation is then used again a mere three pages later (pp. 364, 367). A significant portion of the book’s bulk is devoted to trivia. Dallas has an eye for irrelevant detail and the unrevealing anecdote. The reader is treated to considerable information on the weather. In a work of this size there are, perhaps inevitably, some errors. Dallas refers at one point to an “inter-ballistic missile system” (p. 606) and he dates the merger of the KPD and the SPD in the Soviet Zone to October 1945, not April 1946 (p. 591).

Dallas explores the areas of conflict among the Big Three in detail, but his interpretation fails to address important issues that bear on his argument that Stalin consistently waged a war against the non-communist world. To sustain that interpretation the book should have focused more attention than it does on the origins of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and Anglo-Soviet-U.S. relations from September 1939 to June 1941. In addition, given its thesis, the work does not adequately explain the important instances of cooperation among the Big Three. Much of the conflict between Stalin and the western allies in 1942 and 1943 concerned the opening of a second front in Europe, which the Soviets ardently sought. The study, which picks up the story in the summer of 1944, does not sufficiently address this point.

Perhaps because the work is intended for a general audience, Dallas does not engage extensively with the arguments of other historians concerning the origins of the cold war. A number of historians who have carefully examined the question have concluded that during the war and even through 1945 Stalin perceived potential benefits to be obtained from continued postwar cooperation with the British and the Americans.[2] Some evidence suggests that he was willing to compromise in some cases to obtain cooperation elsewhere in furthering Soviet interests, although certain points, such as the establishment of a friendly regime in Poland, were perceived as vital, non-negotiable Soviet interests.

Finally, the work is consistently weakened by a tendency to eschew nuance or qualification in favor of sweeping, provocative assertions. Dallas, for example, writes, “The war on the Eastern Front was as much a Russian civil war as it was a war between Germans and Russians” (p. 386). Here an interesting insight about the importance of divisions within Soviet society is pushed too far, because those conflicts did not rise to the level of the war of annihilation against the Soviet people launched by Hitler. Or, less importantly, but revealingly, Dallas describes Oliver Wendell Holmes as a “hero to this day of all American lawyers” (p. 413). The incontestable fact that Holmes was one of the most important and admired figures in American legal history is stretched into an assertion that is demonstrably false.

The problem extends to the crux of the book’s argument, where Dallas insists that “the idea of a ‘wartime alliance’ had been the West’s great illusion” (p. 595). Stalin’s only “genuine ally” had in fact been Hitler (p. 597). Dallas presses the point too far. The Soviets, British and Americans were divided by rivalries and conflict, but they nevertheless joined together, as allies, to fight a common enemy. Allies ought not to be confused with friends. For any readers inclined to romanticize the wartime cooperation between the victors, this book will disabuse them of that error. The book provides a thorough, grim catalog of the sufferings of Europeans in 1945, which by no means came to an end on May 8, 1945, and many of which resulted from Stalinist crimes. The insights to be gained beyond these points, however, are disappointingly modest.


[1]. See Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 314-330.

[2]. See, e.g., Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 33; Norman M. Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Stalin’s Cold War: Soviet Strategies in Europe, 1943 to 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

Social Scientists and War Criminals

Martin Oppenheimer

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Martin Oppenheimer teaches sociology at Rutgers University.

THE 49TH CORPS OF THE GERMAN ARMY REACHED THE CAUCASUS and took the city of Mikoyan Shakhar in August, 1942. Professor Nicholas Poppe, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was living in Mikoyan Shakhar and working at the Pedagogical Institute. Poppe, a linguist, had taught Mongolian at Petrograd University in the 1920s, and was an expert on Soviet nationality groups. Profoundly anti-Stalinist, Poppe had decided that the way to flee the Soviet Union was by joining the Germans. He thought they would ultimately lose the war, but if he evacuated with them as they retreated, he would somehow find his way to Britain or the U.S. after the war. So he willingly became an interpreter for the Germans, and when the Soviets retook the area, Poppe left with the Germans. He understood, of course, that his “few stints as an interpreter in the interest of the local people,” as he put it in his Reminiscences, published in 1983, could be called collaboration, sufficient grounds for a death sentence from the Communists should they ever apprehend him.

While still in the Caucasus, Poppe claimed, he was sufficiently influential to save some Jewish children in a sanatorium (by deliberately mistranslating a statement by the director), and the entire tribe of so-called “Mountain Jews,” a Caucasian ethnic group of Persian background that practiced the Jewish religion. Poppe claimed that he “wrote a memorandum in which I pointed out that Tsarist laws had not treated them as Jews but as Caucasian mountaineers. Furthermore, their real name was Tat, and scholarly literature had indicated that the Tat were people of Iranian origin who spoke an Iranian language…[even SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Major] Pesterer himself said, ‘we’re not interested in their funny religion. If they want to be Jewish in religion, we don’t care. It’s the racial Jews we’re against.'” This has got to be one of the more bizarre anecdotes in the entire insane epic of Nazi anti-Semitism.

By the Spring of 1943 Poppe was in Berlin, assigned to work at the Wannsee Institute, a component of SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner’s intelligence operation. His job, he claimed, was research on Siberian history, ethnography, and the like. The Institute should not be confused with the Wannsee Conference, at which, the previous January 20, 1942, the Nazis determined on the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” In any case, Poppe was not in Berlin then.

Christopher Simpson tells us in his book Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War (1988) that the Wannsee Institute’s ethnic reports, “which were the most accurate information available to the SS concerning locations of concentrations of Jewish population inside the USSR, provided a convenient road map for the senior SS leaders assigned the task of exterminating the Jews.” Although there is no hard evidence that Poppe was directly involved in this aspect of Wannsee’s “research,” it would have been unlikely that as an expert on Soviet ethnics he would have had no part in this work, although he consistently denied it. He claimed that the Wannsee Institute was merely one of several institutes that collected materials on various regions of the world, all supervised by a foundation headed by an SS officer, who in turn reported to the Intelligence Section, which in turn reported to Kaltenbrunner, so that he, Poppe, was many steps removed from the SS.

By May 1945, the Russians were closing in on Berlin. A spinoff of Wannsee, the East Asia Institute, with Poppe in it, had been evacuated to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia in 1944. There Poppe encountered General Andrei Vlasov, who had been captured by the Germans and had organized an army for them. The Vlasov army, a brainchild of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, consisted of a mix of Soviet prisoners of war faced with a choice of joining or starving to death, and volunteers motivated by hatred of the Soviet regime and/or opportunism. The Vlasov army fought only briefly as a unit for the Nazis, but a number of Vlasov’s men had not only fought with SS units prior to the formation of Vlasov’s army, but had been part of SS extermination units. Poppe claimed he stayed aloof from Vlasov, though he clearly sympathized with him.

After the military collapse of Germany Poppe, fleeing the advancing Soviet armies, made his way to an estate belonging to a maternal great-aunt near Herford (he had some German ancestry on his mother’s side), and hid there. The U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps was soon hunting him for extradition to the Soviet Union, but a British Counter-Intelligence Corps agent located him first, and Poppe went to live at his house for several months. By the Fall of 1945 Poppe was in touch with several U.S. scholars at Columbia and Harvard who had known him prior to the war. At one point he posed as an Estonian Displaced Person; at another, British intelligence took him out of a DP camp and kept him under wraps for several months to evade a Soviet extradition application. Early in 1947 he was informed that he would not be permitted to enter Britain. The British continued to hide him from the MVD (the Soviet secret service later known as the KGB), provided him with a cover identity, and used him to teach Russian to British officers. However, he seemed to be an embarrassment to the British, so they handed him to the Americans. By May, 1948, Harvard’s Russian Research Center (HRRC) as well as the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, then headed by George F. Kennan, indicated strong interest in obtaining his expertise.

At the end of the war an estimated 5.5 million Soviet citizens, most of them forced laborers or prisoners, lived in Germany. Of this large number, tens of thousands had collaborated with the Nazis in various capacities, among them Vlasov and his people. Not a few were wanted as war criminals. None of these tens of thousands could safely return home. However, as Charles Thomas O’Connell put it in a doctoral dissertation on the Harvard Russian Research Center (Social Structure and Science: Soviet Studies at Harvard, 1990), in the new climate of the Cold War “the realization grew that the Soviet nonreturners might be a valuable political resource.” The use of Soviet DP’s “to fill in the gaps in our current intelligence” (in the words of a State Department paper) became a desirable strategy. Nicholas Poppe, a sophisticated intellectual well-versed in Soviet affairs was a star in this respect.

There were a number of others. Another former professor of languages, Leo Dudin, from the University of Kiev, had also been in Berlin in 1943. During the German occupation of Kiev, Dudin helped put out two propaganda newspapers for the Nazis, one in Ukrainian, one in Russian. In Berlin he worked for the Propaganda Ministry (Goebbels) writing radio scripts for broadcast to the Soviet Union. At some point Dudin joined the Vlasov army. As a Vlasovist, Dudin was also wanted by the Russians and was also semi-underground in West Germany. By 1948 Dudin was working for U.S. Army Intelligence doing “political orientation work.”

By the end of the war, General Vlasov himself had become little more than a burned out alcoholic. He and a number of his top officers were turned over to the Russians, and were executed as traitors. But a large number of Vlasovists escaped the firing squad and made their way to West Germany. Besides Dudin, there was also a Colonel Vladimir Pozdniakov, who had been General Vlasov’s aide-de-camp and chief of security for the Committee for the Liberation of Russia, Vlasov’s political arm. The Soviets had him on a list of 73 alleged war criminals and collaborators because of his pro-Nazi activities, which were said to include having been chief of police in a P.O.W. camp in Poland. A more interesting Vlasovist was Boris A. Yakovlev, actually Nikolai Troitsky, who had once been arrested as a saboteur and “wrecker” during the Stalinist purges. He was, however, released, joined the army, and subsequently was taken prisoner by the Germans in late 1941. After a year as a P.O.W. he decided to collaborate and also worked for the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, editing a newspaper in occupied Russia. In May, 1944, he joined the Vlasov army, and then attended the Nazi intelligence school organized by Richard Gehlen. After that, he edited the Vlasovist newspaper from May 1944 to April 1945, at which point he changed his name and fled to Munich.

SINCE THE WAR THERE HAVE BEEN A NUMBER OF ATTEMPTS to rehabilitate or sanitize the Vlasov movement, although there is wide agreement that its personnel were a mixed bag. Various sources claim that the Vlasov army existed as such for only a few months in 1945 and fought only briefly for the Germans, that it actually engaged the SS in combat in the closing days of the war in Prague, that many were actually anti-Stalinist bolsheviks or democrats who naively believed that a Hitler victory would enable them to restore genuine socialism, that they were connected with anti-Nazi groups in the German Army, including those who attempted the coup against Hitler in July 1944, and that in any case they were not in a position to commit war crimes. Christopher Simpson calls these attempts to whitewash the Vlasovists “bogus.” His verdict: “In reality, Vlasov’s organization consisted in large part of reassigned veterans from some of the most depraved SS and ‘security’ units of the Nazi’s entire killing machine, regardless of what Vlasov himself may have wanted. By 1945 about half of Vlasov’s troops had been drawn from the SS Kommando Kaminsky, which had earlier been led by the Belorussian collaborator Bronislav Kaminsky.” And he adds, in a footnote: “These troops were among the actual triggermen of the Holocaust…”

What Poppe, Dudin, Podzniakov, Yakovlev, and a cluster of their Vlasovist friends had in common, and what was more interesting to U.S. authorities and their closely-linked academic collaborators, was their presumed (and certainly auto-certified) knowledge of Soviet affairs, and their desperation to stay out of Soviet hands. Since intelligence about the Soviet Union was, after the outbreak of the Cold War, worth its weight in gold, or at least immigration visas, it made sense for these people to promote their expertise, real or not, and for U.S. institutions, especially certain university think tanks, to go after them.

JUST ABOUT THE TIME PROFESSOR POPPE WENT TO WORK at the Wannsee Institute, the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division was beginning to set up training programs for the people who were to run the Allied occupation of Germany once the war was over. One of these programs was set up at Harvard, in the form of the School for Overseas Administration. A well-known Harvard sociologist, Talcott Parsons, became part of the staff, wrote a memo on possible sociological contributions to the training, and later chaired the Planning Committee of Harvard’s “Foreign Area and Language Program, Central European Program.” In 1944 he represented sociology in a multi-disciplinary academic conference on the prospects for the democratization of Germany. The conference was heavily biased toward psychological and national character studies of German mentalities, about which Parsons had done some writing.

Parsons’ work at the School for Overseas Administration at Harvard, one of his admirers, Professor Jens Nielsen has written, “brought (him) in contact with governmental and intelligence institutions in Washington, especially the OSS, which was the forerunner of the CIA. Many of his Harvard colleagues also worked for the OSS . . . at the end of the war, William L. Langer, Director of the Research and Analysis Section of the OSS, offered Parsons a job in that organization . . .” Langer joined Harvard’s History Department in 1947, and Parsons, too, had other plans. In 1947 he became Chairman of Harvard’s increasingly distinguished Department of Social Relations. Parsons was by now arguably America’s leading mainstream sociologist. (Two years later he would be elected President of the American Sociological Society.) But first Professor Parsons’ and Professor Poppe’s paths would cross.

It had become increasingly clear to the internationally-oriented Eastern corporate and government establishment even before the war, and more so in the context of the new Cold War, that traditional scholarship had little to contribute to understanding the Soviet bloc. Hence a growing interest in multi-disciplinary area studies. The Carnegie Corporation, an East Coast establishment foundation, soon assumed a leading role in promoting area studies, and its Vice President, John Gardner, took on the task of involving the behavioral sciences in this project. The Carnegie Corporation was not entirely a dispassionate funder of educational and scientific projects. Its charter permitted it to take an active role in “defining research needs and creating programs to fill those needs,” as James O’Connell wrote in his 1990 study, and it did so now. In July 1947, Talcott Parsons, who had gotten wind of Carnegie’s interest, wrote Gardner suggesting that Harvard be involved.

But the Carnegie Corporation and its backers were not alone in promoting research on the Soviet Union. At a September 1947 dinner of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), of which Allen Dulles, soon to head the CIA, was President, Carnegie’s ideas for a Russian Center, possibly at Harvard, were discussed with former OSS officer (by now Harvard professor) Langer. The Council was and is a powerful institution with strong links to corporate and political elites. The Carnegie Corporation had been instrumental in funding the Council, and several Carnegie Trustees served as its Directors and officers. It was already playing a major role in the formation of U.S. foreign policy and would be fully involved in plans for a Russian center through its interlocking personages, from here on in.

Washington was soon directly involved as well. In July 1947 Carnegie V.P. Gardner visited the capital to assess the quality of government research on the Soviet Union. There wasn’t much. He came away with indications that the State Department, as well as the Central Intelligence Group, forerunner of the CIA (Allen Dulles, Wall Street lawyer and President of the CFR, consultant), would be cooperative in the creation of a Russian center. Gardner remained in close touch with the Russian Section, European Division, Office of Intelligence and Research at State, especially later, when it came to recruiting personnel for Harvard’s center.

Shortly after, Gardner’s choice for the location of a Russian Research Center settled on Harvard. Gardner proposed an executive committee to direct the program: the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn as Director, and a “core” group that included Parsons and Alex Inkeles, an expert on the Soviet Union. Kluckhohn, the elected President of the American Anthropological Association in 1947, had “top secret” security clearance from the R&D Board of the (now renamed) Department of Defense and was actively involved in Air Force Intelligence projects. He was not selected for his expertise on the Soviet Union; neither he nor Parsons even spoke Russian.

The Harvard Russian Research Center formally came into existence in February 1948, after the Carnegie Corporation’s Trustees, at Gardner’s bidding, granted it $100,000 for the first year of operation, with another $640,000 in readiness for the following five years. Between 1947 and 1957 Carnegie would give it a total of $875,000.

There were several reasons for locating the Center at Harvard, not the least of which was the close linkage between the State Department, the Carnegie people, and Harvard’s leadership (including its Board of Overseers). Between October 1947 and the formal beginning of the Center in February 1948 a number of scholars were recruited. Carnegie’s Gardner shuttled between Washington, New York, and Chicago (where he interviewed such leading academics as Louis Wirth and Robert Redfield about potential candidates). Gardner was also in contact with the CIA. Boston CIA field agents would soon become the conduits for “conveying the research needs of Washington officials to the Director of the Russian Research Center, who in turn relayed the questions and problems to the scholars of Harvard’s Center,” as O’Connell describes it. In January 1948 John Paton Davies, a member of George F. Kennan’s Policy Planning Staff at State, visited Harvard and met with Director-to-be Kluckhohn, further cementing the relationship between Washington and the Center.

In March 1948 Davies wrote a paper (classified “Secret”) outlining a covert plan to use Soviet emigrés living in Germany as intelligence sources. The plan was approved by Undersecretary of State Robert A. Lovett on March 15. From Lovett’s desk the plan went via various bureaucratic routes to the National Security Agency for transmission to the CIA. There were two components to Davies’ plan: to increase defections from the USSR, and to utilize Soviet refugees to obtain intelligence about the USSR. The latter objective involved a massive research project that would interview Soviet refugees, and would then bring a limited number of emigré Soviet social scientists to the U.S.

The Davies project fit in well with what the Carnegie people had in mind for the Harvard Russian Research Center. A reconnaissance of various potential sources of data (the refugees) needed to be undertaken. Shortly after the formalization of the HRRC, Director Kluckhohn dispatched Executive Committee member Talcott Parsons to carry out this mission. Parsons travelled in Germany, Austria, England and Sweden from June to August 1948, during which time he was in touch with diplomatic and military officials, intelligence personnel, scholars, and a few Soviet displaced persons in order to identify those who might be useful in various ways to the HRRC. He also wrote approximately ten letters to Kluckhohn describing his travels and his contacts. (Two scholars have seen these letters and quote from them in their work: O’Connell, and Sigmund Diamond, the Columbia sociologist and historian, whose Compromised Campus, 1992, devotes several chapters to the HRRC.) Some interesting names appear in these letters. Nicholas Poppe is one of them.

PARSONS WAS IDEALLY SUITED FOR THIS “RECONNAISSANCE” TRIP. He had studied at Heidelberg in the late 20s, had translated the German sociologist Max Weber into English, and by the late 30s was not only politically involved in campaigns against isolationism and (after 1939) in favor of U.S. intervention in the war, but was also writing fairly extensively about the threat of Naziism. Parsons and a number of other Harvard social scientists organized discussion groups focusing, among other topics, on Nazi propaganda. One participant in these groups was Parsons’ close friend and sociological colleague Edward Hartshorne, an expert on the German educational system. Parsons and Hartshorne were about to collaborate on a book dealing with the psychology of Naziism when Hartshorne took a job in Washington in the intelligence field. Immediately after the war Hartshorne, by then an officer attached to the Psychological Warfare Division of Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe, helped to reorganize the German educational system and was a key figure in the rebirth of the German Sociological Society. He was murdered on August 28, 1946 in Germany under mysterious circumstances, an event that greatly distressed Parsons.

It is widely believed, especially in radical sociology circles, that Parsons was a political conservative committed to a sociology that advocated value neutrality, not unlike Max Weber. This is a misperception. Parsons held that indifference to values was impossible for the “liberal scholar.” The values he advocated publicly had to do with “the search for truth” but he also believed that “antiliberal,” that is, totalitarian, views in the academy should not be tolerated. This explains his waffling on McCarthyism later. His writings, insofar as one can penetrate his obscure prose, make it clear that he was opposed to Nazi totalitarianism, and, by implication, Soviet totalitarianism as well.

In short, Parsons was a paradigmatic Cold War liberal. From his perspective it was not inconsistent for him to engage in scholarly pursuits helpful to the intelligence community. Parsons was, by 1948, a highly political animal, and had been for some years. He was neither naive nor likely to be manipulated. As one of his admirers, Robert Bannister, has written, “Parsons was fully aware that Harvard’s RRC was closely integrated with governmental intelligence…” This is echoed by another scholar sympathetic to Parsons, Jens Kaalhauge Nielsen: “There is no doubt…that he was fully aware of the integrated network involving the RRC and the intelligence community and that he knew a lot about Kluckhohn’s strong involvement in intelligence activities.”

On his arrival in Germany on June 20, 1948, Parsons made his way to a U.S. Army Intelligence officer, Colonel Henry Newton, presumably because Newton was one of the “gatekeepers” to Soviet emigré intelligence sources. Newton was not available, but one of his employees, Leo Dudin, the Vlasovist, was, and Parsons spent the night at Dudin’s house. The following day Parsons and Dudin were taken to Garmisch to meet with another intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Hoffman. A few days later Parsons saw Colonel Robert Schow, Deputy Director of Intelligence in the European Command. (A year later Schow became Assistant Director of CIA, working in clandestine operations.) Parsons described these meetings, and some of the emigrés he met in the letters he wrote to Kluckhohn. Besides Dudin, Parsons described and apparently met at least two others: Vlaslov’s former aide-de-camp Pozdniakov, and one Ivar Nyman, a former Soviet Foreign Office official. All three were working for U.S. Army Intelligence by that time. Parsons broached to Kluckhohn the possibility that these three be brought to work at Harvard. (They were not, ultimately, but were employed by the RRC as contacts for obtaining research reports from Soviet Displaced Persons in Germany until 1950, when it became clear that their intelligence was low quality.)

On Jun 30, 1948 Parsons wrote Kluckhohn from Berlin. There, a Harvard professor, C.J. Friedrich, an adviser to General Lucius Clay, had put him in touch with an intelligence officer named Lawrence De Neufville, Deputy Director of the Office of the Military Government (for the U.S. Zone of occupied Germany). De Neufville told Parsons that the British had put a number of Nazi experts on Russia to work, and then De Neufville “came up with the name of our friend Poppe. He told me that P. was under the protection of the British Intelligence people but they want to get him to the United States. He is very hot for them because he is explicitly wanted by the Russians…”

Parsons and the RRC knew about Poppe beforehand. Kluckhohn had been made aware of the fact that John Paton Davies of the State Department wanted to secure an academic position in the U.S. for him. A tentative appointment as Research Associate at Harvard had been authorized, but a hitch developed, probably because more data on his past had come to light. In Germany, Parsons became privy to confidential information shared between British and U.S. intelligence agencies. In a letter of June 30, 1948, Parsons tells Kluckhohn of meeting with a British intelligence man named Rhodes, who had Poppe’s dossier, marked “Top Secret” on his desk. Parsons tells Kluckhohn that if a way can be found to get Poppe into the U.S., the British will take care of letting him out of Germany.

There is no evidence that Parsons actually met or talked with Poppe. Nor can we tell how much Parsons knew of Poppe’s past (particularly since Poppe was not necessarily giving every detail, logically enough). However, Parsons knew enough to voice some doubts about this crew: “Perhaps I was a little hasty in my recommendations on the Dudin group. I don’t know. Certainly they aren’t the only ones and their political inclinations may be extreme — and yet — I want to go back to them with the wider perspective.” We do not know what he meant by “extreme,” or what “the wider perspective” may have meant. Parsons does not seem to have had anything further to do with getting Poppe to the U.S. Parsons’ wife Helen, who was administrative director of the RRC, was aware, however, that Harvard’s tentative offer to Poppe was in jeopardy. She wrote to Poppe in Germany telling him not to count on an appointment due to “complications.”

On Parsons’ return he met with Carnegie’s President Charles Dollard and V.P. Gardner, who were much encouraged about the prospects of further, and closer cooperation between the RRC and official U.S. circles in Germany. Parsons’ own relationship with the intelligence community continued over the years. As late as 1974 he was a consultant to the CIA on student protest movements, and on personality aspects of potential CIA recruits.

Poppe does not mention Parsons in his Reminiscences, but he does say that Kluckhohn informed him he could not get the Harvard appointment because, Poppe thought, he had stayed in Germany “as a refugee from the Soviet Union and worked for the German government.” Anyway, Poppe was flown to Washington in 1949 under the name of Joseph Alexandros, and debriefed by Carmel Offie, of the CIA-funded Office of Policy Coordination in the State Department. He had in the meantime landed a job at the University of Washington (Seattle), in its Far Eastern Institute, where he wrote several books on Asian linguistics. He died in 1991 at the age of 88. Poppe continued, for the rest of his life, to deny any involvement in war crimes. He feuded with Owen Lattimore, who had accused him of being an SS officer, and later went to the trouble of obtaining a sort of clearance from the Archive of the Federal Republic of Germany, which wrote to him in February 1963 that based on the available documentation “it would appear that you were not a member of the SS.”

After Parsons’ “reconnaissance,” the coast was clear for the Harvard Russian Research Center to proceed full speed with the collection of scholarship and/or intelligence. The Harvard Refugee Interview Project of 1950-51, directed by Alex Inkeles, an original member of the RRC, and Raymond A. Bauer, senior research staff member of RRC, was funded by the Air Force. (It eventually conducted over 700 interviews, administered over 2,000 questionnaires, and resulted in four books, 35 articles and 53 unpublished reports.)

However, before the Project could get underway it was necessary to locate and organize an influential group of Soviet emigrés in order to legitimate this and subsequent research among the understandably suspicious Soviet refugee population. This group came to be known as the Institute for Research on the History and Institutions of the USSR, or, more popularly, the Munich Institute. The Institute was funded at first by Harvard, and later by the CIA [February, 1951 until 1971, when Senator Clifford Case (R, N.J.), blew the whistle]. Harvard maintained a liaison, Professor George Fischer, and there was a CIA adviser, Leon Barat. It pretended to be an autonomous group of scholars that ran a library, conducted conferences, operated a summer school for Sovietologists, and otherwise behaved like many other scholarly institutes. However, its real function was to act as a contact organization through which Harvard’s RRC could obtain access to Soviet D.P.s and other Soviet emigrés for research (and intelligence) purposes. The RRC, working with Boris Yakovlev, founder of the library, selected an “academic council” from among emigrés employed at the U.S. Army Intelligence schools in Germany. All had security clearance.

Although full information is not available on all eight members of the council, or executive committee of the Institute, we know that four of them were clearly Vlasovists and/or Nazi collaborators. Yakovlev, the Director, had had some 33 aliases, and had worked for the Vlasovist newspaper under the direction of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Michael Aldan, actually André Nerianin, former chief of staff of the Soviet 20th Army, had been Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations, for Vlasov. He was wanted as a war criminal by the Soviets. Abdurachman Kunta, originally Avtorkhanov, had organized a “white” partisan group for the Germans, and had worked as a propagandist in Berlin. Konstantin Shteppa also worked in propaganda for the Nazis. Pozdniakov, the Vlasovist whom Parsons met in 1948, was ousted from the Institute due to personality difficulties. The evidence on the other four is more circumstantial. The degree to which any could have been considered serious scholars is open to debate, since the written reports they sent to Harvard were not highly regarded there. In March 1951, Harvard cut off funding and the CIA picked up the tab via its conduit, the American Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia, also called Radio Liberty. It became a propaganda mill under the guise of a research institute that had been legitimated to varying degrees over the years by the Harvard imprimatur.

The process that led to the creation of the HRRC in the first place, and then to Parsons’ mission, and later to the Munich Institute, is not how most people view the way universities and scholars work. Here a private foundation with major links to corporate, university and governmental circles (themselves linked to each other) not only determined research priorities and funded a research institution to carry those priorities out, but even named the personnel who would operate the institution, and vetted its scholars. Then those scholars pursued a research agenda largely funded and determined by government agencies, particularly in the intelligence community, utilizing sources the access to which was also provided by intelligence agencies. In turn those sources had a political agenda, rooted in their own history. One cannot help but suspect that the results may have been at least a bit skewed due to that bias.

But a more important bias was the source of those research priorities: the U.S. Air Force. That priority, regardless of what else may have come out of the research (much of it fairly conventional, noncontroversial social scientific descriptions of the Soviet system), was to study the Soviet Union as a potential target of U.S. air power (bombing), specifically the selection of targets based on analyses of the psychological vulnerability of the population. These analyses were based on the kind of social scientific methodology being promoted by major U.S. universities, with Harvard very much playing a star role.

The research, in short, was rooted in the political (especially foreign policy) assumptions of the U.S. government, and more broadly the establishment network that had created the instrument for carrying that research out. No alternative assumptions were entertained: the historian H. Stuart Hughes, HRRC’s initial assistant director, was ousted at the order of a Carnegie trustee because Hughes supported the Henry Wallace campaign. From beginning to end, from the Carnegie Corporation and its corporate sponsors to the State Department to Harvard to the CIA and the Air Force, the Cold War and full-scale armament was the order of the day, and given that perspective, the fact that some sources of intelligence may have been war criminals in a previous war became at worst a minor inconvenience.

THERE IS AN ODD EPILOGUE TO THIS STRANGE cloak-and-dagger-meets-Harvard respectable-social-scientists chapter in the history of the Cold War, one that speaks volumes about what is and is not “politically correct.”

In 1993 a German sociologist, Uta Gerhardt, edited a book called Talcott Parsons on National Socialism. The book consists of a 78-page introduction, which is a biography of Parsons and a discussion of his views on Naziism, and 14 essays by Parsons, some never before published, dealing with a range of topics from academic freedom, propaganda, and anti-Semitism to concrete discussions of Naziism and German social structure, the nature of fascist movements, and even a radio script (from September 1940) that is a thinly disguised argument for intervention in the war. They are not uninteresting but they are of secondary importance to the present story.

Gerhardt, clearly an admirer of Parsons and his anti-totalitarian views, tells us that her volume will cover the period to 1951, the publication date of Parsons’ The Social System. Her biography stops in 1946, however. Parsons’ political activities after 1946, and well before 1951, are completely absent from her book. The HRRC is not mentioned. If we did not know better, we would assume from her book that Parsons absented himself from political involvement in Germany following 1946 and never set foot in that country again.

But we do know better. University of California (Irvine) historian Jon Wiener stumbled upon Charles O’Connell’s doctoral dissertation, then still in draft form, and wrote an article for The Nation (March 6, 1989) describing in some detail Parsons’ involvement with trying to smuggle “Nazi collaborators” into the U.S. as Soviet studies experts. Gerhardt, it turns out, was aware of Wiener’s article when she wrote her book.

Then a sociologist, Jack Nusan Porter, who is a Holocaust researcher and himself the child of survivors, wrote an extremely favorable review of Gerhardt’s book for Sociological Forum (September 1994), the journal of the Eastern Sociological Society. The book, he felt, shows Parsons in a new light, that of the anti-totalitarian activist, thereby undermining new left critics who, like C. Wright Mills, had painted Parsons as a conservative. “…in our youthful certainty,” Porter wrote, “we were too hard on him…Far from being the ‘reactionary’ that the 1960s antiwar activists thought of him…this book makes it clear that Parsons was a strong supporter of human rights in the fight for democracy against the onslaught of Nazism.” Unfortunately, Porter was unaware of Wiener’s Nation piece at the time and when he found out about it (from me), he was understandably upset. He (and I) tried to have a correction to his review published.

The sociological establishment then circled the wagons to protect Parsons. The journal refused to publish any amendment to Porter’s review, much less any letters about it, for about two years. Finally, in December 1996 it published a long, somewhat rambling, essay by Porter expressing both dismay about and admiration for, Parsons. It also published, in the same issue of Sociological Forum, what amounted to two lengthy defenses of Parsons, one by Gerhardt, and one by N.Y.U. sociologist Dennis Wrong, whose piece is entitled “Truth, Misinterpretation, or Left-wing McCarthyism?”

In this essay, self-described social democrat Wrong attacks Wiener’s Nation piece as a hatchet job, attacks The Nation for having espoused an anti-Cold War ideological line “and even printing the occasional outright Stalinist, including several suspected Soviet agents,” and boasts of his own funding by Carnegie, and his connections to the late Dean Acheson of the State Department, and George Kennan. He accuses critics of the Cold War of viewing matters “through the distorting lens of the slogans and cliché of the late 1960s New Left,” and of being antagonistic to liberalism and social democracy, and therefore of playing into the hands of right-wing ideologues. Almost needless to say, he defends Parsons’ activities in Germany. He also defends the journal in its prior decision not to publish any amendment to Porter’s effusive book review. Wrong seems to believe that a historical description of Parsons’ involvement with the HRRC project and with the intelligence community constitutes being soft on Stalinism. And he links a defense of Parsons to a defense of Cold War strategy as promoted by Kennan and others.

The first of these assumptions is not tenable: no one who has been involved in describing the history of the HRRC, and Parsons’ mission to Germany in 1948, is in any sense an apologist for Stalinism. Most are old enough to be innocent of New Leftism anyway, and some have solid credentials in the anti-Stalinist left. However, it does seem that many of Parsons’ advocates defend him (insofar as they are willing to concede that the events described here, or by Diamond or O’Connell did in fact take place, which is not always the case) on the basis of the historical “necessity” of defending the West from Soviet imperialism. The notion that it is possible to be anti-Stalinist, to be entirely clear on the nature of the Stalinist state and the dangers that it constituted in 1948 (e.g. the Czechoslovak coup in February of that year) and at the same time opposed to U.S. foreign policy (which included sheltering Nazis and their collaborators, supporting all sorts of dictators around the world from Spain to Indonesia, and contemplating the incineration of civilian populations “in defense of freedom”) because one is antitotalitarian seems hard for him to grasp.

Wrong’s simplistic Cold Warriorism and old-fashioned red-baiting aside, why are so many sociologists apparently enlisted to defend Parsons’ reputation at this late date? The matter of Talcott Parsons’ “missing years” is known, though not widely. It would seem that there are people who prefer to keep it that way. Still, what harm would it do to satisfy historical objectivity nearly 50 years later? Is it that Parsons’ many sociological disciples, people whose careers are based on “Parsonian sociology,” are embarrassed by these disclosures and feel they must therefore either deny Parsons’ role, or somehow justify it as a matter of saving face? Or are Parsons and the HRRC really not the issue? Does a description of power structure networks and their responsibility for formulating university research agendas, and the interlock between those networks and “top” universities and intelligence and other “defense” agencies, get too close to undermining the myth of scholarly objectivity and thereby the respectability of the university, a status that has been in careful repair since the end of the Vietnam War?


It is truly ironic that the most numerous units of foreign nationals raised by the Germans during World War II came from among the “sub-human” Slavs of the Soviet Union. Faced with waging war in a country of vast distances and infested with enemy partisans, the Germans had no choice but to recruit Russians to ease the strain on their own manpower. Even the “Aryan élite”, the Waffen-SS, raised Russian formations.

It is impossible in one article to present a detailed analysis of all the Russian nationals who served with the German armed forces in World War II. Instead, a general summary of the main units raised by the Germans from the different ethnic groups in the Soviet Union will be presented.

The war on the Eastern Front

Before analyzing the Russian nationals who served the Third Reich, it is important to stress the unique nature of the Nazi war in Russia. It was, above all, an ideological conflict, and was waged in varying degrees as such by the German Army, Waffen-SS and the Nazi administrators in the occupied territories. If Western Europe was viewed by Berlin as being populated mainly by Aryans, the peoples of Russia were seen largely as “sub-human” Slavs. Himmler and his cronies may have singled out some ethnic groups, such as the Latvians, as being “racially acceptable”, but even in Latvia the Germans treated the local population atrociously.

On the eve of the campaign in Russia, Hitler informed his commanders: “We must depart from the attitude of soldierly comradeship … we are talking about a war of annihilation … commissars and members of the GPU [secret police] are criminals and must be dealt with as such.” Just before the attack in June 1941, he signed the Commissar Order instructing his generals to have captured commissars shot forthwith. To carry out these instructions, four SS Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Squads), composed of SS, criminal police and security police, operated behind the German lines. Although Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Einsatzgruppen, specified to the higher SS and police officers in charge of captured Russian territory that only “Jews in the service of party and State” were to be shot, it seems very likely that the action squads were encouraged to execute all the Jews they could lay their hands on – which is exactly what happened.

Nazi ideology in the East

Nazi racial publications stressed the ideological nature of the war in the East: “The most dangerous opponent of our worldview at present is Marxism, and its offspring Bolshevism. It is a product of the destructive Jewish spirit, and it is primarily Jews who have transformed this destructive idea into reality. Marxism teaches that there are only two classes: the owners and the propertyless. Each must be destroyed and all differences between people must be abolished; a single human soup must result. That which formerly was holy is held in contempt. Every connection to family, clan and people was dissolved. Marxism appeals to humanity’s basest drives; it is an appeal to sub-humans.

“We have seen first-hand where Marxism leads people, in Germany from 1919 to 1932, in Spain and above all in Russia. The people corrupted by liberalism are not able to defend themselves against this Jewish-Marxist poison. If Adolf Hitler had not won the battle for the soul of his people and destroyed Marxism, Europe would have sunk into Bolshevist chaos. The war in the East will lead to the final elimination of Bolshevism; the victory of the National Socialist worldview is the victory of Aryan culture over the spirit of destruction, the victory of life over death.” (Official Nazi pamphlet outlining racial theories, Berlin 1943.)

Hitler and his General Staff anticipated that the Blitzkrieg against Russia would last a maximum of 10 weeks, during which time the Red Army would be smashed. Afterwards, the defeated Soviet Union would be organized into a series of provinces. As part of the Lebensraum policy, the conquered population would be resettled, Germanized or exterminated.

Against this background, it was inconceivable to Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy that the Wehrmacht should raise foreign volunteer units from among “sub-human” Slavs. As the German Army groups rolled east following the invasion of 22 June 1941, it appeared that the war would indeed be over quickly. But then the offensive ran out of steam at the end of November, and the Wehrmacht was faced with at least another year of fighting in Russia. In the face of military necessity, therefore, the Germans were forced to enlist the assistance of indigenous Slavs in their fight against the Soviet Union.

The first Russian units

The first volunteer units raised in Russia were created in the autumn of 1941 by individual German Army commanders. On their own initiative, they organized auxiliary units made up of Soviet deserters, prisoners (the Germans had taken two million prisoners by mid-October 1941) and volunteers from the local population. The German Army greatly underestimated the number of prisoners it would take. As a result, many prisoners of war (POWs) ended up dying of disease or starvation in overcrowded POW camps. This was a huge waste of potential manpower, especially given the dissatisfaction towards Moscow among many non-Russian ethnic minorities. The so-called Hilfswilligen (volunteer helpers), or Hiwis, were employed as sentries, drivers, store keepers, depot workers and so on. Hundreds of Hiwis also carried out combat roles. In July 1941, for example, the 134th Infantry Division began openly enlisting Russians. By the spring of 1942, there were 200,000 Hiwis in the rear of the German armies, and by the end of the same year their number was allegedly one million.

The Hiwi experiment

The reasons for this rapid expansion are not hard to find: German Army commanders realized that because of the wide expanses under their control and the general shortage of German manpower, they would have to resort to local recruits. Hiwis served either as individuals or as members of a group (up to company size) attached to German units, mainly in the rear. The Hiwi experiment, undertaken without the authorization of either Hitler or the High Command, was a success, and so the Germans gradually expanded the range of jobs Hiwis carried out, their conditions of service were formalized, they were given German uniforms, and their food rations and pay almost achieved parity with those of German soldiers.


The next step taken by the Germans was the organization of voluntary military troops, called Osttruppen. These troops, dressed in German uniforms, guarded roads and railway lines, fought Soviet partisans in the German rear (Nazi brutality towards the local population had created high partisan activity behind the German frontline, which army commanders did not have the manpower to deal with) and occasionally held sectors of the front. Osttruppen were usually organized in battalions, and by the middle of 1942 there were six such battalions in the rear of Army Group Centre alone. Each battalion was drawn from a single ethnic group, with liaison and certain command positions being occupied by German officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Each battalion numbered around 750 men, with recruits being drawn from POW camps, recently captured prisoners, conscription by the Germans and men already serving as Hiwis.

Reasons for fighting Stalin

What was the motivation of Hiwis and Osttruppen? Decades of inhumane social, ethnic and religious policies had alienated huge groups of the Soviet population. If in central Russia the state through terror had annihilated or kept under tight check any opposition, in the recently “liberated” Baltic republics, the Ukraine, Belorussia and Bessarabia the harshness of the Soviet regime was still fresh in the memory. Brief acquaintance with the gulag system, NKVD and collectivization in agriculture had shown the true nature of Stalin’s regime. As a result, ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were more than happy to be liberated and even join the fight against Bolshevism. However, it is doubtful that there was a substantial number of pro-Hitler supporters among these peoples. Some were pure opportunists, criminals and adventurers who did not care which side they fought on. Many secretly hated Stalin for collectivization, labour camps and the reign of terror, while others were disillusioned with the Soviet system after the initial collapse of the Red Army. The majority, however, simply did not want to rot in German POW camps. Others, of course, wanted to win independence for their own homelands, i.e. to be free of both German and Russian rule.

As well as German-organized units, there were other more ad hoc formations that were briefly independent before the Germans took them over. The most infamous of these was the Kaminski Brigade.

The Kaminski Brigade

This was a locally raised militia group whose members gathered on the verges of the Bryansk Forest in the small Belorussian town of Lokot in late 1941 to protect themselves from Russian partisans. It was commanded by Bronislav Vladislavovich Kaminski, who spoke fluent German and had spent five years in the gulag for being an “intellectual”. By mid-1943, with the encouragement of the Germans, his brigade numbered 10,000 men in 14 rifle battalions, an anti-aircraft battery and support companies. Each battalion consisted of four rifle companies, plus mortar and artillery platoons. It also had an armoured element which had eight tanks (a KV-1, two T-34s, three BT-7s, two BT-5s), three armoured troop carriers (a BA-10, two BA-20s), two tankettes and cars and motorcycles. Kaminski called himself the “Warlord of the Bryansk Forest” and was given a free hand to clear partisans from the area. He called his force the Russkaya Ovsoboditelnaya Narodnaya Armija (RONA – Russian Army of National Liberation). The RONA enforced security during harvesting, escorted special food trains, guarded railways and mounted “punitive” operations in partisan zones.

SS-Sturmbrigade RONA

By the end of August 1943, the situation in the Lokot district was deteriorating so Kaminski evacuated the RONA and its civilians to the town of Lepel in the Vitebsk region. The mission of the brigade in Belorussia was to guard the rear of the Third Panzer Army. In addition, because of high partisan activity at the beginning of 1944, the RONA was moved to the town of Djatlovo in western Belorussia.

In spring 1944, the Germans conducted some anti-partisan operations in the region between Minsk and Lepel. The RONA took part in these missions as part of a group headed by SS-Obergruppenführer Gottberg, and had the status of assault brigade. By this time, it had been officially accepted into the Waffen-SS as SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, and Kaminski was made a Waffen-Brigadeführer. The brigade acted with great ruthlessness, and Kaminski was decorated with the Iron Cross, 1st class, for his efforts. In July 1944, the brigade became the 29th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russische Nr 1).

Anti-partisan operations

At this juncture, it would be useful to say something about anti-partisan operations as many Russian units in German pay undertook these unpleasant missions. On the Eastern Front, the area from the frontline towards the rear up to a depth of 160km (100 miles) was under German Army control. Then came the Reich Commissariats, which were under the control of the SS. Units were under SS or army control depending on the areas in which they were operating. At first, partisan activity in German-occupied areas was light, but due to Nazi excesses, by mid-1942 it had grown enormously. There were no military or political guidelines for the German occupying forces on the treatment of civilians in partisan-infested country. This meant many innocent civilians were arrested and shot merely on suspicion of being partisans.

Regions that contained partisans would first be cordoned off, and then the area would be de-populated and all livestock removed. Men and women who were not shot as partisans were deported to Germany as POWs, and the women taken to work in German factories. Unfortunately for the Germans, partisan areas were often located in swamp or forest terrain, which was difficult to penetrate and clear. In addition, mines and booby traps took a toll on attackers, which resulted in harsh and indiscriminate treatment being meted out to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into German hands.

The Germans used locals and Russian national units to assist them in anti-partisan work. Foresters and game-keepers were especially useful, as were dogs, though many German commanders believed that Russian hounds had been bred with anti-German instincts! Local units, especially Cossacks and Hiwis, were unreliable and often deserted to the partisans. Bearing all the above in mind, it is no wonder that most anti-partisan missions ended in failure.

German atrocities

This caused frustration among the Germans, who often committed atrocities in response. During Operation Kottbus, for example, conducted between mid-May and 21 June 1943, an attempt was made to seal off the partisan-infested area between Borissow and Lepe. It involved 16,000 German soldiers and Russian allies. The result was a total failure, with only 950 enemy small arms taken but 12,000 civilians killed.

In August 1944, two battalions of RONA volunteers, headed by SS-Obersturmbannführer Fromov, were despatched to Warsaw to help crush the Polish uprising. They were sent to the district of Wola and committed so many atrocities, including the rape of German girls, that there were widespread demands (even from some SS commanders) for their withdrawal. It was reported that in one day alone – 5 August 1944 – they murdered 10,000 Polish civilians. Kaminski was later shot by the SS, being tricked by the Germans to leave his men and his death made to look like a motoring accident. The division was disbanded, with the personnel being sent to Vlassov’s army and others to the 30th SS Division. The less desirable elements of the division were either sent to concentration camps or shot. The 29th Division was dropped from the rolls of the Waffen-SS, and the title given to the new Italian division that was being formed.


Alongside the RONA was the Russkaya Natsionalnaya Narodnaya Armiya (RNNA – Russian Nationalist National Army) led by a “White” Russian émigré called S. N. Ivanov. The unit was formed at Ossintorf near the Orsha-Smolensk rail line. It was organized along Russian lines, being equipped entirely with captured Soviet arms. Its personnel wore Red Army uniforms with tsarist-type white, blue and red cockades. The unit’s Russian members, along with many other Russian units in German service, wrongly assumed that they were the nucleus of a future great Russian “liberation” army. They therefore decided (without prior German approval) to name their embryonic formation the RNNA. By the end of 1942, the formation numbered 7000 men organized into four infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and an engineer battalion. Recruits came mainly from POW camps, the volunteers joining to escape starvation. Some émigrés also decided to join the RNNA, including Lieutenant V. Ressler, Lieutenant Count G. Lamsdorff and Lieutenant Count S. von der Pahlen.

German policy towards the RNNA

The formation’s first major engagement took place in May 1942, in the Yelnia area east of Smolensk. Some 300 RNNA men were assigned the task of probing the positions of the encircled Soviet Thirty-Third Army, an operation that took several weeks. By December 1942, the RNNA was approximately the size of a German brigade and was a well-trained formation.

Feldmarschall Hans von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, having personally inspected the unit, was impressed by what he saw but issued an order that stipulated that the formation be divided into individual battalions and assigned to separate German units. These actions were in line with Hitler’s order to keep all the units of Russian nationals no larger than battalion size.

The RNNA almost mutinied in protest, since the order destroyed any idea that they were an embryonic Russian army of liberation. The matter was resolved when several RNNA officers were promoted and the formation was not broken up (though neither was it sent to the front). However, the damage had been done and the RNNA soldiers no longer trusted the Germans. Those who remained were later incorporated into the ROA formation (see below).


In parallel to the RNNA were the so-called Eastern Legions (Ostlegionen). In late 1941, Hitler was visited by General Erkilet of the Turkish General Staff, who urged the Führer to intervene on behalf of Red Army POWs of Turkic nationality. Hitler, eager to recruit Turkey as an ally, granted permission in November for the creation of a Turkistani legion. The experiment was such a success that by the end of the year three more Eastern Legions had been formed, the Caucasian Moslem Legion (later split into the North Caucasian Legion and the Azerbaijani Legion), Georgian Legion and Armenian Legion. In addition, by mid-1942, the Crimean Tartar and Volga Tartar Legions had been raised. Hitler, wary of this rapid growth, stipulated that the legions be organized into units no larger than a battalion and then widely dispersed among German Army formations to prevent them being a security hazard. An exception, as a gesture to court the Turks, was the formation of the Turkistani 162nd (Turkish) Infantry Division in May 1943 to serve as the parent unit for the various legion battalions.

Turkic and Caucasian Forces

The most interesting legion was the Sonderverband Bermann, formed by Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris and composed of Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and other Caucasian POWs. The plan was to parachute the unit behind Soviet lines to act as a “fifth column”. Nothing came of the idea, though, and its two battalions ended up fighting at the front.

In August 1942, General Ernst Köstring was made Inspector General of Turkic and Caucasian Forces; by September 1944, he had thousands of legion members under his command. In the legions and replacement battalions were 11,600 Armenians, 13,000 Azerbaijanis, 14,000 Georgians and 10,000 North Caucasians. These nationalities formed a further 21,595 men in pioneer and transport units, 25,000 in German Army battalions and 7000 in Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS formations. This gave a total of 102,195 men.

The legion movement was a success in that large numbers of recruits were raised, which freed up regular German units to undertake combat duties. However, when it came to frontline combat duties they were less useful. Often poorly armed, trained and motivated (especially when they were located away from their region of origin), they were unreliable and next to useless. For example, the 797th Georgian Battalion simply refused to fight when ordered to do so.

The Cossacks

No study of Russian units in German service would be complete without mention of the Cossacks. Contrary to popular legend, and despite anti-communist sentiments nourished by many Cossacks and the cracking-down on many aspects of Cossack traditions by the communist regime, the overwhelming majority of Cossacks remained loyal to the Soviet Government. That said, substantial numbers of Cossacks did fight for the Germans in World War II.

On 22 August 1941, while covering the retreat of Red Army units in eastern Belarus, a Don Cossack major in the Red Army named Kononov (a graduate of Frunze Military Academy, veteran of the Winter War against Finland, a Communist Party member since 1927 and holder of the Order of the Red Banner) deserted and went over to the Germans with his entire regiment (the 436th Infantry Regiment of the 155th Soviet Infantry Division), after convincing his regiment of the necessity of overthrowing Stalinism (among the few incidences of a whole Soviet regiment going over to the Axis during World War II). He was permitted by local German commanders to establish a squadron of Cossack troopers composed of deserters and volunteers from among POWs, to be used for frontline raiding and reconnaissance missions. With encouragement from his new superior, General Schenkendorff, eight days after his defection Kononov visited a POW camp in Mogilev in eastern Belarus. The visit yielded more than 4000 volunteers in response to the promise of liberation from Stalin’s oppression with the aid of their German “allies”. However, only 500 of them (80 percent of whom were Cossacks) were actually drafted into the renegade formation. Afterwards, Kononov paid similar visits to POW camps in Bobruisk, Orsha, Smolensk, Propoisk and Gomel with similar results. The Germans appointed a Wehrmacht lieutenant named Count Rittberg to be the unit’s liaison officer, in which capacity he served for the remainder of the war.

The 600th Don Cossack Battalion

By 19 September 1941, the Cossack regiment contained 77 officers and 1799 men (of whom 60 percent were Cossacks, mostly Don Cossacks). It received the designation 120th Don Cossack Regiment; and, on 27 January 1943, it was renamed the 600th Don Cossack Battalion, despite the fact that its numerical strength stood at about 2000 and it was scheduled to receive a further 1000 new members the following month. The new volunteers were employed in the establishment of a new special Cossack armoured unit that became known as the 17th Cossack Armoured Battalion, which after its formation was integrated into the German Third Army and was frequently employed in frontline operations.

Kononov’s Cossack unit displayed a very anti-communist character. During raids behind Soviet lines, for example, it concentrated on the extermination of Stalinist commissars and the collection of their tongues as “war trophies”. On one occasion, in the vicinity of Velikyie Luki in northwestern Russia, 120 of Kononov’s infiltrators dressed in Red Army uniforms managed to penetrate Soviet lines. They subsequently captured an entire military tribunal of five judges accompanied by 21 guards, and freed 41 soldiers who were about to be executed. They also seized valuable documents in the process.

Kononov’s unit also carried out a propaganda campaign by spreading pamphlets on and behind the frontline and using loudspeakers to get their message to Red Army soldiers, officers and civilians. Unfortunately for Kononov, the behaviour of the Germans in the occupied territories worked against his campaign. But Kononov’s Cossacks continued to serve their German “liberators” loyally, and were particularly active with Army Group South during the second half of 1942.

Cossack units in the German Army

Aside from Kononov’s unit, in April 1942, Hitler gave his official consent for the establishment of Cossack units within the Wehrmacht, and subsequently a number of such units were soon in existence. In October 1942, General Wagner permitted the creation, under strict German control, of a small autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban, where the old Cossack customs were to be reintroduced and collective farms disbanded (a rather cynical propaganda ploy to win over the hearts and souls of the region’s Cossack population). All Cossack military formations serving in the Wehrmacht were under tight control; the majority of officers in such units were not Cossacks but Germans who had no sympathy towards Cossack aspirations for self-government and freedom.

The high tide of German conquest

The 1942 German offensive in southern Russia yielded more Cossack recruits. In late 1942, Cossacks of a single stanitsa (Cossack settlement) in southern Russia revolted against the Soviet administration and joined the advancing Axis forces. As the latter moved forward, Cossack fugitives and rebellious mountain tribesmen of the Caucasus openly welcomed the intruders as liberators. On the lower Don River, a renegade Don Cossack leader named Sergei Pavlov proclaimed himself an ataman (Cossack chief) and took up residence in the former home of the tsarist ataman in the town of Novoczerkassk on the lower Don. He then set about establishing a local collaborationist police force composed of either Don Cossacks or men of Cossack descent. By late 1942, he headed a regional krug (Cossack assembly) which had around 200 representatives, whom he recruited from the more prominent local collaborators. He also requested permission from the Germans to create a Cossack army to be employed in the struggle against the Bolsheviks, a request that was refused.

The Cossack movement

The leading figures in the Cossack movement tried to bring about the creation of a Cossack nation, but were always thwarted by Nazi policy in the East. For example, a former tsarist émigré general named Krasnov, based in Berlin, with Hitler’s blessing backed the foundation (in German-occupied Prague) of a Cossack Nationalist Party. It was made up of Cossack exiles who had fled abroad after the White defeat in the Russian Civil War. Party members swore unwavering allegiance to the Führer as “Supreme Dictator of the Cossack Nation”. Simultaneously, a Central Cossack Office was established in Berlin to manage and direct the German-sponsored party. The ultimate aim was to create a “Greater Cossackia”: a Cossack-ruled German protectorate extending from eastern Ukraine in the west to the River Samara in the east.

The homeless Cossack horde

Though the idea of a Cossack state had no part in Nazi plans, the Germans did agree to enlarge the hitherto existing autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban and to enroll additional Cossacks into the ranks of the Wehrmacht in order to placate the progressively more dissatisfied Cossacks. By the beginning of 1943, though, the Axis was retreating following the disaster at Stalingrad and thus these plans came to nought. Due to the sudden military reverses suffered by the Germans in southern Russia, many Cossack collaborators were forced to join the retreat west in order to escape reprisals from the Soviets. In February 1943, the Germans withdrew from Novoczerkassk, taking with them Ataman Pavlov and 15,000 of his Cossack followers. He temporarily re-established his headquarters at Krivoi Rog in the spring of 1943, and shortly afterwards the Wehrmacht allowed him to create his own Cossack military formation. Numerous Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks were called to the colours, but many turned out to be so unsuitable for combat duties that they were sent to work on local farms instead.

Soon the horde of Cossack refugees was on the move again, eventually ending up at Novogrudek in western Belarus, from where five poorly equipped Cossack regiments were dispatched into the countryside to operate against Soviet and Polish partisans. By this time, much of Belarus was controlled by partisans, and the Cossacks took heavy losses with Pavlov being killed. Domanov was appointed as his immediate successor. As a result of the successful Soviet offensive in Belarus and the Baltics undertaken in the summer of 1944, codenamed Operation Bagration, the Cossack column was once again forced to retreat, this time westwards to the vicinity of Warsaw. By this period, any semblance of discipline had disappeared and the Cossacks left a trail of rape, murder and looting. From northeastern Poland they were transported across Germany to the foothills of the Italian Alps where they ended the war.

The 1st Cossack Division

It was only when the military situation in the East had turned against them that the Germans enticed the Cossacks with promises of greater independence. For example, in mid-1943, the High Command deemed it appropriate to create a Cossack division under the leadership of Oberst Helmuth von Pannwitz. The division was formed at a recently established Cossack military camp at Mlawa in northeastern Poland from Kononov’s unit and a regiment of Cossack refugees. Following its formation, the 1st Cossack Division comprised seven regiments (two regiments of Don Cossacks, two regiments of Kuban Cossacks, one regiment of Terek Cossacks, one regiment of Siberian Cossacks and one mixed reserve regiment). As was customary, the Cossack officers were replaced by German ones, with the sole exception of the most notable Cossack commanders who retained their posts (Kononov being one of them). Nazi racial prejudices resulted in the German officers and NCOs mistreating the Cossacks, who retaliated by assaulting and even killing some of their more arrogant superiors. In September 1943, the division was transported to France to assist in the guarding of the Atlantic Wall. However, the Cossacks requested to be assigned frontline responsibilities outside France. The German High Command thus transferred the division to Yugoslavia to take part in anti-partisan operations.


By the end of 1943, the Germans had retreated from the Cossack homelands in Russia. As a result, the Cossacks in German service became disillusioned, and so, in November, Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and Chief of Staff of the OKW, Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, assured the Cossacks that the German Army would retake their homelands. However, as the military situation made such promises unrealistic, arrangements were made to set up a so-called “Cossackia” outside the Cossack homelands. Eventually, the foothills of the Carnic Alps in northeastern Italy were selected for the purpose of providing the wandering Cossacks with a new home.

The “Directorate of Cossack Forces”

In March 1944, an organizational/administrative committee was appointed for the purpose of synchronizing the activities of all Cossack formations under the Third Reich’s jurisdiction. This “Directorate of Cossack Forces” included Naumenko, Pavlov (soon replaced by Domanov) and Colonel Kulakov of von Pannwitz’s Cossack Division. Krasnov was nominated as the Chief Director, who would assume the responsibilities of representing Cossack interests to the German High Command.

XV Cossack Corps

In June 1944, Pannwitz’s 1st Cossack Division was elevated to the status of a corps and became XV Cossack Corps, with a strength of 21,000 men. In July, the corps was formally incorporated into the Waffen-SS, which allowed it to receive better supplies of weapons and other equipment, as well as to bypass notoriously uncooperative local police and civil authorities. Interestingly, the Cossacks retained their uniforms and German Army officers.

The granting of SS status to the Cossack corps was part of Himmler’s scheme to limit the Wehrmacht’s influence over foreign formations. The Reichsführer-SS was quite happy to accept Cossacks into the SS, as Alfred Rosenberg’s ministry came up with the theory that the Cossack was not a Slav but a Germanic descended from the Ostrogoths. A replacement /training division of 15,000 men was also formed at Mochowo, southwest of Mlawa. The corps fought in Yugoslavia; and at the end of the war, 50,000 strong, retreated to Austria to surrender to the British.

In all, around 250,000 Cossacks fought for the Germans in World War II. The Germans used them to fight Soviet partisans, to undertake general rear-area duties for their armies, and occasionally for frontline combat. But they were held in scant regard by most German Army commanders.

General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov

A far more important pro-German Russian force was the liberation army under the command of the former head of the Thirty-Seventh and Twentieth Soviet Armies, and later deputy commander of the front on the River Volkhov: General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov. The son of a Russian peasant born in Nizhni Novgorod, in the spring of 1919 he was recruited into the Red Army and fought against the Whites as an officer. He did not join the Communist Party until 1930 but thereafter his rise was rapid: a major-general by 1938 and a divisional commander by December 1939. During Operation Barbarossa, he commanded a tank corps then an army, taking part in the Battle of Kiev and the defence of Moscow. In March 1942, he became deputy commander of the Volkhov Front but was taken prisoner at the end of June.

Thousands desert to the Germans

He immediately aroused the interest of the 4th Propaganda Section of the Wehrmacht (WPrIV) and was transferred to a special, comfortable camp for important Russian prisoners. There he was subjected to a subtle propaganda campaign which played on his aversion to the Soviet system (of which the Germans must have been aware before his capture). His personal charm, effective manner of speaking, gift of inspiring confidence and high rank earmarked him to head the Russian liberation movement. The persuasion worked, as in September 1942, still in the POW camp, Vlassov wrote a leaflet calling on the officers of the Red Army and the Russian intelligentsia to overthrow the Stalinist regime.

The leaflet was dropped by the thousand from Luftwaffe aircraft, and the response was good. Day after day, the German High Command received reports from all the army groups that thousands of Red Army deserters were coming over to the Germans and asking for General Vlassov.

These reports infuriated Hitler, though, who prohibited any talk of General Vlassov and Russian formations (there was to be no collaboration with the “sub-human” Slavs). However, by January 1943, the leaflet campaign had yielded such good results that the higher echelons of Army Groups Centre and North invited General Vlassov, on their own initiative, to go on a tour of their areas and deliver speeches to POWs and the local population. In March, Vlassov visited Smolensk, Mohylev, Bobruisk, Borisov, Orsha and other places, and later toured the areas of Army Group North. His reasons for taking up the fight against Bolshevism were listed in a letter to a German newspaper in March 1943:

Vlassov’s statement

“I realized clearly that Bolshevism had dragged the Russian people into the war in the alien interests of Anglo-American capital. England has always been an enemy of the Russian people. It has always striven to weaken and harm our motherland. But Stalin saw a chance to realize his plans for world domination by following Anglo-American interests. In order to realize these plans he tied the fate of the Russian people to the fate of England, and plunged the Russian people into war, condemning it to countless disasters. These calamities of war crown all the other miseries which the peoples of our country have suffered under 25 years of Bolshevik rule.

“Would it not therefore be criminal to continue shedding blood? Is not Bolshevism, and Stalin in particular, the main enemy of the Russian people? Is it not the primary and sacred duty of every honest Russian to fight against Stalin and his clique?”

Hitler and Feldmarschall Keitel remained deeply hostile to the whole idea, and suggested in June 1943 that Vlassov’s recruits should be sent to Germany to work in coal mines as replacements for Germans.

The KONR Army

The result was that by the middle of 1944, Vlassov’s formation, the Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia (ROA – the Russian Army of Liberation) was not an army in the sense of a military organization. Units that bore its name were mostly commanded by German officers, and were dispersed all over Europe. General Vlassov and his Russian National Committee had no influence whatsoever, and were not recognized by the German Government. In July 1944, however, Himmler, seeing the dire situation the Reich was in, decided to meet with Vlassov (the Reichsführer-SS at this time had great power, being Chief of the SS, Chief of the Police, including the Gestapo, Minister of the Interior and, since the attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944, also Commander of the Reserve Army). Because of the attempt on Hitler’s life, the meeting did not take place until 16 September 1944. Himmler agreed to the creation of a new committee called the Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossi (KONR – Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia), and to the creation of the KONR Army under General Vlassov’s command. The committee and army were to embrace all Soviet citizens living under German rule, in order to unite their political and military activities in the fight against Bolshevism. To begin with, five divisions were to be organized from among POWs and workers brought to Germany from the occupied territories in the East (by this time, the Red Army had entered Poland, reached East Prussia and was at the Yugoslav border).

The Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia

The representatives of the non-Russian nationals, who wanted to sever all ties with Russia and create their own independent states, were against the idea of the KONR Army. Despite Himmler’s threats, the Ukrainians, White Ruthenians (a former province in eastern Czechoslovakia), Georgians and Cossacks refused to join the KONR.

On 14 November 1944, the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia held its inaugural meeting in Prague. The Prague Manifesto was proclaimed detailing KONR’s aims: the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny, the liberation of the peoples of Russia from the Bolshevik system, and the restitution of those rights to the peoples of Russia which they had fought for and won in the people’s revolution of 1917; discontinuation of the war and an honourable peace with Germany; and the creation of a new free people’s political system without Bolsheviks and exploiters.

A large recruit pool

All decisions and instructions had to be “coordinated” with the appropriate German commissar. Nevertheless, the publication of the Prague Manifesto made a deep impression on many Russians. First of all, it brought forth a great number of voluntary applications for service in the KONR Army, a number that surpassed all expectations. On 20 November, for example, 60,000 applications were received. Large numbers of volunteers from among POWs and Soviet refugees who had left their native lands voluntarily with the retreating German armies, preferring a wandering life in strange and perhaps unfriendly lands to a return under the NKVD yoke, were received. Bizarrely, desertion from the Red Army to the Germans increased after the publication of the manifesto, despite the looming defeat of Nazi Germany.

The KONR Army had begun to form in November 1944, accompanied by shortages of arms and equipment. As a result of the deteriorating military situation in the East, the five divisions were reduced to two. Despite his difficulties, Vlassov formed an army headquarters, two motorized divisions, one reserve brigade, an engineer battalion and support units – a total strength of 50,000 men. On 28 January 1945, he officially took command of the army.

The 1st KONR Division

The 1st KONR Division, under the command of General Sergei Kuzmich Bunyachenko, was given the name 600th Panzergrenadier Division. Its organization began in November 1944 at Muensingen, and operational readiness was reached in mid-February 1945. The nucleus of the division consisted of the remnants of the 30th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russian No 2), which had been greatly reduced during the fighting in France, and the remnants of the infamous Kaminski SS division. When the rabble of the latter formation arrived at the camp where the division was being formed, gangs of armed and unarmed men in all kinds of uniforms, accompanied by women in gaudy dresses, spilled out of the railway carriages. At the sight of them, Bunyachenko exclaimed in anger: “So this is what you’re giving me – bandits, robbers, thieves. You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” Amazingly, despite acute shortages of arms, equipment and supplies, at the beginning of April the division reached the front on the River Oder.

The 2nd KONR Division

The 2nd KONR Division, under the command of General G. A. Zveryev, was named the 650th Panzergrenadier Division. Its formation began in January 1945 in Baden, some 69km (43 miles) from the camp of the 1st Division. Owing to the shortages in arms and equipment, it never really reached operational readiness. The nucleus of the division consisted of a few battalions withdrawn from Norway, and some recently captured Russian prisoners. In addition, the KONR Army’s headquarters, the reserve brigade, the engineer battalion, the officers’ school and other units, in all some 25,000 men, were being formed in the same area as the 2nd Division. The organization of the 3rd Division was begun in Austria, but its strength apparently never exceeded 2700 men.

In mid-April 1945, the 1st Division was given the task of capturing the Soviet bridgehead in the area of Frankfurt-on-Oder. This bridgehead had been previously attacked by the Germans, but without success. The attack of the 1st Division also failed, with heavy losses owing to lack of adequate artillery and air support. After the failure of this attack, Bunyachenko withdrew the division on his own authority, and a few days later began the march towards the frontier of Czechoslovakia, together with other Russian volunteers – more than 20,000 men in all. On the way, the Germans tried in vain to induce him to obey their orders. At the end of April, the division reached the frontier of Czechoslovakia where Vlassov himself joined it.

The saga of the KONR army

On 2 May, they stopped short of Prague where they were informed that the army’s headquarters, 2nd Division and the remaining formations of the KONR were on their way through Austria to Czechoslovakia.

At this time, Prague seemed to be the objective of both the American and Soviet armies which were approaching from two directions. This induced the Czechoslovak National Council to call for an uprising against the Germans, which began on 5 May. On the same day, the Czechs implored the Allies by radio to come to their aid because Prague was threatened by the Germans. Receiving no reply to its appeal, the council turned for help to General Bunyachenko. On the morning of 6 May, the 1st Division joined the fight, and by the evening had cleared Prague of SS troops. The Czechs greeted Vlassov’s men joyfully, but the next day Bunyachenko was informed that Prague would be occupied by the Red Army, not by the Americans as he had expected, and that the Czechoslovak National Council was being replaced by a pro-Soviet government headed by Eduard Benes. The latter demanded that the forces of General Vlassov were either to await the Red Army’s entrance in order to surrender, or leave Prague as soon as possible. On the morning of 8 May, General Bunyachenko’s troops began to march towards the same area from where they had come only four days before.


A few days after leaving Prague, the 1st KONR Division laid down its arms in the Czech village of Schluesselburg in the American zone. On 12 May, Bunyachenko was informed that Schluesselburg would be included in the Soviet zone, and that the local American commander did not consent to letting the division march beyond the new demarcation line. The only possible solution, suggested the Americans, was that the soldiers of the KONR might try to cross over to the American zone individually. General Bunyachenko immediately disbanded the division, advising his subordinates to try their luck on their own. During the flight, however, many were shot by Soviet troops and the majority were captured by the Red Army. Some 17,000 of them are said to have been deported to Russia, where they suffered death or life imprisonment. General Vlassov himself fell into Soviet hands on 12 May.

The 2nd KONR Division split into two parts; the greater part, together with the Pannwitz’s Cossack corps, surrendered to the British on 12 May in Austria, to be interned in the area of Klagenfurt. One regiment of the 2nd Division and the army’s headquarters reached the American zone after a long and weary journey, and were interned at Landau in western Bavaria. Thus ended the saga of the ROA.

Ukrainian units

One group that deserves special mention with regard to foreign units in German service are the Ukrainians. Ukraine contributed thousands of recruits to the German war effort during the four-year war on the Eastern Front.

In mid-September 1939, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, western Ukraine (western Wolhynia and eastern Galicia) was handed over to the Soviet Union and incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). In June 1940, Bessarabia and northern Bukovyna were annexed from Romania and added to the Ukrainian SSR. Western Galicia was under German control.

The aim of Ukrainian nationalists was independence from both German and Russian rule. The Organizacji UkraiÄskich Nacjonalist—w (OUN – Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was formed in 1929 and headed by Stepan Bandera. Its military wing, the Nationalist Military Detachments, was organized in 1939 under the leadership of Colonel Roman Sushko. It had the support of the Germans immediately before their war against Poland, but existed for a very short time, being disbanded when the Nazi-Soviet pact came into effect. In February 1940, the OUN split into two hostile factions: OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk; and OUN-B, led by Stepan Bandera. They and their followers were popularly known as Melnykivtsi and Banderivtsi.

The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists

During Barbarossa, the Germans had captured most of the Ukraine by the end of November 1941. Galicia was attached to the General Government of Poland, while Bukovyna and the area up to the southern River Bug, including Odessa, was handed over to Romania. The remainder was organized as the Reichs Commissariat Ukraine, administered by Erich Koch. With the German armies came Ukrainian nationalists. The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists was organized with the support of the Germans and fought under the auspices of the Bandera faction of the OUN (OUN-B). It was divided into two battalions: Nachtigall and Roland. Nachtigall had about 1000 men in Lvov when a Ukrainian state was proclaimed by OUN-B in June 1941 (to the great surprise of the Germans, who arrested both Melnyk and Bandera and the OUN-B leadership). Both battalions were returned to Frankfurt-on-Oder and there organized into Guard Battalion 201, which was sent to Belorussia to combat partisans. Because of various complaints about the Ukrainians’ insubordination, almost all its officers were arrested and the unit disbanded. One officer, Captain Roman Shukhevych, escaped and later became commander-in-chief of the Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya (UPA – Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist as opposed to communist organization). He headed the Ukrainian underground until his death in a battle with Soviet MVD troops in March 1950, near Lvov.

The Galician Division

Galicia’s governor-general, Otto Wachter, approached Himmler with a proposal to create a frontline combat division from Galician recruits. After speaking with Hitler, Himmler gave Wachter the go-ahead and ordered the creation of the 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division Galicia. Despite Himmler’s position as the head of the SS, he encountered opposition to the idea. Erich Koch, Karl Wolfe (Waffen-SS liaison officer on Hitler’s staff) and SS General Kurt Daleuge (Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia) believed that the weapons supplied to such a unit would be turned on the Germans. Himmler stood firm, though, and the Galicia division was established. He had two reasons for doing so: the loss of manpower after the defeat at Stalingrad meant the Reich desperately needed new formations; and he had a fear that disaffected Ukrainian youths would join the underground movement, i.e. the UPA.

The 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division was formed in mid-1943 from 80,000 applicants. The best 13,000 were selected and the rest were used to form police regiments. From its inception, UPA members infiltrated the unit. Despite this, it was trained and equipped and passed out with a strength of 18,000 men. Like other Slav units, the division’s commander, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Freitag, and his officers were all German. In June 1944, the division was part of Army Group North when it was committed to its first and only major battle – in the Brody-Tarnow Pocket – which almost destroyed it. Following this engagement, the division numbered only 3000 men. After a period of rest and refitting, the division participated in several half-hearted anti-partisan operations in Slovakia and Slovenia before surrendering in Austria in May 1945.

The Ukrainian Liberation Army

Other Ukrainian units were formed by the Germans from Red Army POWs. This was the case with the Sumy (Ukrainian) Division, created in late 1941 and early 1942, which was nearly destroyed during the fighting at Stalingrad in 1942-43. In 1944, its remnants were attached to Vlassov’s ROA.

As a result of Ukrainian complaints, all Ukrainian units were separated from the ROA and reorganized as the Ukrainian Liberation Army in the spring of 1943. Its original strength was around 50,000, but by the end of the war this had increased to 80,000. However, it was short of arms and other supplies, and took heavy casualties fighting the Red Army. The remnants ended up in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.

In a typical German response to the dire situation in the East, in early 1945 all Ukrainian units or their remnants were brought together under one command, when the Ukrainian National Committee, headed by General Pavlo Shandruk, was established in Berlin. In addition, the Germans finally agreed to the creation of the Ukrainian National Army (UNA). The core of the army was to be the reorganized Galician Division, which was to become part of the UNA’s 1st Division. Although this plan was never fully realized because of Germany’s defeat, the Germans’ consent to Ukrainian control of these units gave the Ukrainians a free hand too.